Agnes of God Brings Noir to the Stage with a Murder Mystery

Repertory Philippines continues its winning streak for its 50th anniversary with Bart Guingona’s Agnes of God, a dark thriller about a murder in a convent.

Agnes of God tells the story of young Sister Agnes, a sweet and innocent nun who mysteriously becomes pregnant and is found in a room, her baby dead in a wastebasket. Psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingstone is appointed by the court to examine Agnes’s mental stability and find the truth behind the case, but she is constantly blocked by the headstrong Mother Miriam Ruth. The superior insists that Agnes’s pregnancy was an immaculate conception, and that the young child is innocent.

The contrast between Dr. Livingstone’s scientific approach to the truth, Mother Superior’s insistence on faith, and Sister Agnes’s obliviousness is what makes this play a delicious watch.

Agnes of God was written by John Pielmeier, and premiered on Broadway in 1982. Amanda Plummer, who played the role of Agnes, won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress, while Geraldine Page, who played Mother Miriam Ruth, was nominated for Best Actress. In 1985, it was adapted into film by Norman Jewison, starring Jane Fonda as Dr. Martha Livingston (the E was dropped on purpose). The adaptation was nominated for three Academy Awards.

In the Philippines, Agnes of God was adapted by Repertory Philippines in 1983, with Pinky Amador playing the young Agnes. This 2017, the actress is returning, this time starring as Mother Miriam Ruth. Amador’s strong personality is so perfect that she often disappears in her role. Every now and then, I had to remind myself that this is Amador.

Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo as Dr. Livingstone is elegant in how she reconciles her prejudice against the church and her scientific background with what’s happening in front of her. The character is a heavy smoker, and the actress coasts through the scenes like Marlene Dietrich, even if she doesn’t smoke in real life. Only a keen-eyed observer would note that she holds her cigarette a bit awkwardly, but I have to give props because she did not cough once during the play’s run.

For me, the highlight was Becca Coates, who plays the titular Agnes. Coates is a young actress (she’s studying a medical-related program at the De La Salle Health Sciences Institute), but she shows a maturity in her role, even if she plays a naive nun. She portrays a sweet vulnerability that will look cloying on anyone else. She was perfectly cast.

Tying this all together is the marvelous set created by Joey Mendoza, accompanied by the haunting lighting of John Batalla. The set is at once ethereal and brutalist, and filled with the scent of incense and cigarette smoke, resulting in a highly-intoxicating watch.

Agnes of God is required viewing for everyone because of its struggle between the sacred and the sane, and for its highly-engaging and thought-provoking prose. It’s a heavy journey, but one I am happy I took.

Repertory Philippines’ Agnes of God will be staged at Onstage Theater, at the 2nd Floor, Greenbelt 1, Paseo de Roxas corner Legazpi Street Makati City, from February 17 to March 12, 2017. For inquiries, you may call Rep at 843-3570, and Ticketworld at 891-9999 or log on to www.ticketworld.com.ph. For updates and show schedules, log on to www.repertoryphilippines.ph. You may also follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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