BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
TAMPA — "Agnes of God? Isn't that the one about a pregnant nun?''
So went a snatch of conversation overheard last week as a couple passing the Shimberg Playhouse stopped for a moment to look at a poster for the latest Stageworks production before they continued on to join the horde at Wicked, also playing at the Straz Center.
That sort of idle, half-familiar, not terribly interested response seems about right for Agnes of God, the 1982 play by John Pielmeier that was pretty hot stuff in its day but now seems hopelessly old-fashioned.
It is a kind of religious potboiler. A girlish singing nun faces a manslaughter charge for giving birth in a convent, strangling the baby with its umbilical chord and stuffing the corpse in a wastepaper basket. She comes under the interrogation of a court-appointed psychiatrist with issues of her own. The nun's defender is the mother superior, who holds out for some miraculous explanation for the conception of the child, which the accused insists she knows nothing about.
Traditionally, Agnes of God has served as a star vehicle — Elizabeth Ashley, Geraldine Page and Amanda Plummer on Broadway; Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft and Meg Tilly in the movie. With such powerhouse casting, perhaps the drama works on some level, but it just seems overwrought and obvious in the hands of lesser performers.
Eileen Koteles plays the psychiatrist, Dr. Livingston; Hersha Parady is the mother superior; and Dahlia Legault, Agnes, in the Stageworks production, directed by Karla Hartley. These three actors give strenuous, busy performances, but they flounder badly in the lurid material.
The main thrust of the play is a tired debate between Livingston's secular skepticism — conveniently, the psychiatrist is a bitter lapsed Catholic — and the earthy mother superior, whose spiritual passion is unflagging in the wake of the horror show that occurred at the convent.
"The virgin birth was a lie told to a cuckolded husband by a frightened wife,'' Livingston declares to the mother superior, who counters with philosophical musings about the loss of faith in an age of rationality.
Koteles, a grand inquisitor with a shag hairstyle, goes through about half a pack of cigarettes in the first act, but she has quit after intermission as her obsessive chain-smoking is replaced by an obsession with the angelic Agnes. That's a typical piece of amateur psychology by Pielmeier, who had trouble sustaining his career as a playwright after Agnes of God.
Legault is suitably ethereal as a God-stricken young nun, but she is overmatched by the strident, over-the-top demands of the play's denouement. Put under hypnosis, she relives her night of childbirth in a hysterical scene, complete with ear-piercing screams and bloody bedsheets.
Hartley's staging is nothing special, and the set by R.T. Williams is blandly conventional, consisting of a table and a couple of pews framed by sheer white curtains.
Stageworks is trying to raise money to build a theater of its own in the Channelside district, and audience members are asked to contribute loose change to the cause during the intermission of this production. More power to founder/producing artistic director Anna Brennen and her supporters, but really, they have to do better than dredging up hackneyed melodramas like Agnes of God to get people excited about the company.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.