When you say, “Agnes of God” most people will remember the 1985 movie, starring Jane Fonda and Anne Bancroft, with Meg Tilly in the titular role. Less known is that the movie derives from a play produced in 1979, later opening on Broadway in 1982. The stellar Broadway cast included Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Ashley, while young Amanda Plummer took on the role of Agnes. It is a play fraught with whodunit intrigue, but it is also a deep dive into toxic parent/child relationships, spirituality, and conflict between the secular world and the Catholic Church. Dukesbay Productions opened “Agnes of God” this weekend at their cozy theater in the Merlino Arts Center in Tacoma. The play drew a full house on Opening Night and those lucky enough to see the lid-lifter were treated to sterling performances throughout.
What makes community theater work? That’s a good question, because the answer is different depending on the production. Right now, South Sound theater is excellent across the board. Some of the shows work because of production values. Some work because the script is too good to fail.
“Agnes of God” works because Director Nyree Martinez cast the daylights out of it! There are only three characters in the show, and Ms. Martinez nailed it with all three.
As Dr. Martha Livingstone, Maria Valenzuela is intense and precise. She goes into the central question of the show as a dispassionate clinician. Later, fully vested in the relationship with the young novitiate, Dr. Livingstone’s cool demeanor begins to come apart. Ms. Valenzuela doesn’t rush the transition. Instead she carefully doles it out to the audience in perfect bites. Dr. Livingstone is beautifully drawn by the artist Maria Valenzuela, who also comes to her part with a particularly pleasing speaking voice. There is the slightest of accents there, and it is a pleasure to hear.
Laurie Sifford’s Mother Miriam Ruth is pious and Holy, but there is iron in that woman’s spine. The veteran nun loves the women put under her charge, and will defend the contemplative Order against all-comers. Ms. Sifford and Ms. Valenzuela clash repeatedly, and those moments are when this play is most on fire.
Cecilia Lewis plays Agnes with a childlike outlook on her place in the world. Raised in the most perilous of environments, Agnes seeks protection from the outside world. She never sought out the predicament she finds herself in (unless she did, for just a few minutes, while singing her song out of the open window), and is unable to bear up under the pressure. Ms. Lewis speaks every line with conviction, but is somehow at her most convincing when she looks into the distance, silently accepting of the next message from Almighty God. She, like her cast-mates was chosen for this role, because she was the right girl in the right place for the right part. Drama in the Hood would not be surprised to see Cecilia Lewis kneeling in prayer during Sunday morning Mass at Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church. She convinced us of her piety.
Putting on a show at Dukesbay offers some wonderful possibilities when it comes to set dressing. The small confines highlights each prop. Pre-show Director Martinez shared with a few of the patrons why each item was so carefully chosen. Obviously, she put as much thought into the props as she did her cast. The woman has serious instincts.
“Agnes of God” deals with some very adult themes, and parents of young children should be cautioned. That said, many in the audience Opening Night reacted viscerally to what they saw. Is it an easy watch, like Java Tacoma is an easy watch in this same facility? Not at all. But, it is a fulfilling and thought-provoking watch. Lovers of drama, and lovers of quality acting should definitely see this show. Make plans soon and buy your tickets early. It’s a small theater hosting mighty big talent. Don’t miss seeing it work.
“Agnes of God,” by John Pielmeier, Dukesbay Theater 508 6th Ave #10, Tacoma, WA. Fri-Sat 7:30, Sun 2 pm through March 17. Tickets: dukesbayagnes.brownpapertickets.com/?fbclid=IwAR3STa5F0-xEJlwkZ9B7viQDVO1pMRIj41aiI9hk9bVDOTw8Z7j7DKYH8OY Info: dukesbay.org, or (253) 350-7680.