Crediting Miracles

by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n the conflict between reason and faith, the deck is stacked in reason's favor. Reason gets to deal in deductions and facts, things that can be seen. By comparison, faith just seems like guesswork.

That's how skeptics and empiricists see it. But John Pielmeier's Agnes of God presents an atheist who's desperate to regain even a little faith and a woman of the cloth who's intent on preserving the faith to which she clings. It's a confrontation among a mother superior, a novice nun in her charge who has somehow given birth inside the convent walls, and the court-appointed psychiatrist who investigates the apparent murder of the baby, which was found dead. From the start, both the disbelieving professional woman and the dubious elder nun look to the novice, Agnes (her very name connotes purity and chastity) for the kind of simple, unfettered faith that feels so difficult in our skeptical, modern age.

With its intense, claustrophobic staging and generally good performances, director Michael Weaver's production at Actors Rep (through Jan. 27) does what the opened-up 1985 movie couldn't: It emphasizes the immediacy of live performance while stripping away extraneous details to concentrate on emotional debates. The result is a play that's talky but which still offers rewards. Besides, with the Mother Superior trying to obstruct the investigation, we've got contemporary resonance. Let's see, an official in the Catholic hierarchy tries to control public perception of a scandal involving not only sexual abuse but also danger to the abused victim. Sound familiar?

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & K & lt;/span & ate Vita finds the remote professional sternness called for in the role of the psychiatrist, but not Dr. Martha Livingstone's vulnerability or spiritual longing. In a suit and professorial glasses, her hair pulled back into a bun, Vita is all business -- except for the neuroses implied by her chain-smoking. The playwright has supplied, a little too neatly, some childhood experiences that crack the shrink's professional demeanor; Vita needs to show more of the childlike fears and the adult's near-desperation to believe in something, anything.

From the convent's nun in chief, we might expect rigid formality, but Jane Fellows surprises us with hints of humor, a secular weakness or two and emotional vulnerability. It's the most fully rounded of the evening's three performances.

In the title role, Caryn Hoaglund, needs to convey unquestioning belief that is not merely superstition. She succeeds, partly, though in the early going Hoaglund doesn't project dewy-eyed innocence; she's not spacey enough. In an early exchange, however, Fellows gets her to laugh at cruelty -- hinting at Agnes' disjointed mind -- and by the second act, when Agnes relives her horrific past, Hoaglund creates several chilling moments. With her hands clenched at odd angles, her solo church voice wavering between rapturous belief and uncertainty, Hoaglund's Agnes adds layers of intensity in building to an affecting, tragic finish.

Pielmeier keeps the details of Agnes' not-so-immaculate conception murky enough that there's room for some mystery and speculation. And some of the play's revelations border on the sensationalistic. Ultimately, however, Agnes isn't merely a melodrama, but a play that makes use of sensational events in order to set up thoughtful debates. If we believe in the possibility of past miracles, why don't we believe in them today? If we simply dismiss faith as childish credulity, why do we long to have even a little bit of it ourselves?

Weaver keeps all three actors onstage continuously, and he makes sure that one scene flows, sometimes startlingly, into the next. During her expository monologues, however, Vita's psychiatrist does too much simple back-and-forth pacing. The blocking, usually varied in interesting ways, could have used more variety here.

The set, by Gonzaga's John Hofland and Sam Schroeder, consists of fragmented pews, with all the emotional confrontations played out in a confined and claustrophobic space. The actors sometimes chase one another from row to row, slipping between pews as if caught in some kind of maze. In the rear, symbolic blood-red umbilical cords tie the playing area to God -- or, more literally, to an overhanging depiction of Christ the Good Shepherd tending to His sheep.

Agnes' baby had a mother; Agnes herself looked to Holy Mother Church for parental authority. In Pielmeier's play, authority figures both secular and devout have their failings, and the scenic design at ARt participates in expressing that theme.

Human reason is an insufficient tool for figuring out everything about our reality; Sometimes simple faith is just a life preserver, clutched at in response to terrible cruelty. Pielmeier's drama seems to suggest (and without offering definitive answers), that by themselves reason and faith are narrow-minded and incomplete. In a world of partial answers, we need both.