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Faith and human frailty prove volatile mixture in ATC pairing of ‘Doubt’ and ‘Agnes of God’

Submitted by on Oct 9, 2012 – 6:11 pm

Review: “Doubt” by John Patrick Shanley (★★★★) and “Agnes of God” by John Pielmeier (★★★) at American Theater Co. through Nov. 4

By Lawrence B. Johnson

One comes away from the “twin” Catholic plays at American Theater Co. with two distinct impressions: that John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” and John Pielmeier’s “Agnes of God” really do share something besides habited nuns and a preoccupation with guilt, and that these fine-tuned productions both probe deeply and adroitly into core issues that ultimately have more to do with human nature than religion.

Perhaps just as director – and ATC artistic director – PJ Paparelli acknowledges that he is, or was, Catholic, I should note that I am not and never was. I’m just a participating observer of the human comedy, another player on the worldly stage that both “Doubt” and “Agnes of God” reflect with tragic verisimilitude.

“Doubt” centers on a nun who’s certain that a priest – a teacher at the secondary school where she is principal — has been sexually abusing a male student. She has no real proof; she just knows. Confident in her intuition, which is based largely on tenuous circumstantial evidence, she begins a relentless campaign to bring the priest down, indeed to force him to confess.

As the grappling nun and priest, Kate Skinner and Lance Baker make a high-contrast pair. Skinner’s cynical, even bitter nun is an investigator bent on proving her case as prosecutor. Here is a woman in her middle years, a self-styled keeper of the moral flame in a world populated by two sorts: the perverse and the naïve. And this protectress knows which is which.

The naïve, identifiable by her love of teaching and the joy she finds in life generally, is a young nun called Sister James and inhabited with irresistible ebullience by Sadieh Rifai. While the flinty elder nun presses her condemnation of the suspected priest, she also takes time out to remonstrate with Sister James for her excessive positivism in all things from the quality of mercy to the pleasure of sugar in one’s tea. Rifai’s compassionate young nun cannot believe that the priest, this good and caring man, could possibly be guilty of anything so awful. Skinner’s grinding, perhaps misanthropic huntress cannot believe this girl could be so easily taken in.

The quarry in the nun’s dogged pursuit is Lance Baker’s big-brotherly, calmly philosophical priest. The play opens with his stirring sermon on doubt, which the suspicious nun construes as a telling self-revelation. (After a subsequent chat with the comprehensively negative nun, the priest makes a note on a pad of paper he keeps handy. When she demands to know what he’s scribbling, he says it’s just a possible sermon topic: Intolerance.)

And yet, could this annoying crone be right in her suspicion? The play touches its dramatic peak, and Baker pushes it there with devastating force, in the priest’s emotional collapse upon his accuser’s final onslaugtht. But is he guilty as charged? At the end, there’s doubt enough to go around.

Guilt is also the abiding question in “Agnes of God,” as a court-appointed psychiatrist interrogates the mother superior of a convent and a young nun whose new-born baby has been found strangled in the girl’s room. The dreamy suspect, Sister Agnes, insists she remembers nothing of a birth, or even of being pregnant – a condition no one at the convent seems to have noticed. More than that, Sister Agnes affects having no sexual knowledge of men.

The possibility of divine conception is gingerly advanced by the mother superior (Kate Skinner), though the psychiatrist (Penelope Walker) never takes that idea seriously as she pushes and prods both the older nun and the younger (Sadieh Rifai) to determine what really happened. Who was the man, how could no one know this girl was pregnant and who killed the baby?

Despite the title’s proximity to the Latin Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), “Agnes of God” is only circumstantially a “church” play. In a much larger sense, it’s a psychodrama in which threads of crisis, faith and personal history form a fine web of need, caring and reality.

Skinner offers an appealing mother superior, a woman with more profound matters at stake than meet the eye, and Walker cuts a sharp-eared psychiatrist with a believable urge not just to discover, but to help. That said, neither Skinner nor Walker seemed quite secure with their lines, or sure of their expressive intent, on opening night. It was Rifai’s wide-ranging performance as Agnes, a girl with old secrets too hideous to remember, that ultimately led one to understand and care about all three women.

Both productions bear the stamp of theatrical efficiency, from Paparelli’s economical use of ATC’s long thrust stage to designer Scott Davis’ minimalist sets and Jesse Klug’s precisely gauged lighting.

“Doubt” and “Agnes of God,” one-act plays lasting about 70 minutes each, are not, strictly speaking, a double bill at ATC. On some performance dates, it’s possible to see them consecutively; other times, each show constitutes an evening. But there’s a deal to be had here:

Prices for the regular run for each show are $38 for Thursday nights and Saturday-Sunday matinées, and $43 for Friday-Saturday nights. Buying a ticket for “Doubt” and gets a ticket for “Agnes” for $15. Online, use the code “REP15” when purchasing your “Agnes” tickets.

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Sister Agnes (Sadieh Rifai) considers a question from a psychiatrist (Penelope Walker) in “Agnes of God.” Descending: A suspected priest (Lance Baker) gives a sermon in “Doubt.” The mother superior of a convent (Kate Skinner) wants to protect a young nun in “Agnes of God.” A psychiatrist (Penelope Walker) interviews a nun (Sadieh Rifai) about the death of her new-born baby in “Agnes of God.” Below: An accused priest (Lance Baker) and a sympathetic young nun (Sadieh Rifai) pray together in “Doubt.” (Photos by Peter Coombs)

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