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Not a world of black and white

Becky Hachey as Sister Agnes, a young, novice nun accused of murdering her newborn baby in Agnes of God. - Contributed photo
Becky Hachey as Sister Agnes, a young, novice nun accused of murdering her newborn baby in Agnes of God.
— image credit: Contributed photo

The conventional wisdom of community theatre is a “bums on seats” mantra calling for seasons of farces, mechanically plotted thrillers, or just about any of Norm Foster’s numerous, and largely interchangeable, chuckle-fests.

But director Wendy Bollard (Waiting For The Parade, The Mousetrap) is betting that the White Rock/South Surrey live-theatre audience – while as fond of laughs and chills as any – is mature enough to welcome more challenging fare. Much more.

That’s certainly the case with her latest project for Peninsula Productions, Agnes of God, which runs Feb. 28 to March 9 at Coast Capital Playhouse.

John Pielmeier’s 1979 play examines a struggle of wills over Sister Agnes, a young novice nun (Becky Hachey), accused of murdering her newborn baby.

Her Mother Superior, Miriam Ruth (Nancy Ebert), is convinced Agnes is an innocent embodying the will of God, while a court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Martha Livingstone (Laine Henderson), believes the case conceals ugly secrets that need to be uncovered.

While not lightweight material by any means, Bollard feels Agnes of God is also the stuff of riveting theatre. There’s plenty of excitement, she said, in watching the combined skills of a handful of accomplished players generate sparks that can keep an audience right on the edge of their seats.

“There are no bells and whistles with this,” Bollard said. “It’s all about acting and telling the story.”

She said she’s pleased with the chemistry of her three-woman cast,  handpicked from an encouragingly large group of talented actresses who came out to audition last fall.

“Becky is doing great work. She has a beautiful singing voice, which is integral to the role. (The audience) has to fall in love with Agnes, otherwise it doesn’t make any sense.

“Laine has only done one play (last year’s Peninsula Productions presentation of The Mousetrap) but she’s excellent, especially when she goes with her instincts.

“I’d never met Nancy before, but I remembered seeing her in (White Rock Players’) Ladies of the Camellias. When she showed up to audition, I was very pleased.”

Although it’s more than 30 years old – with a 1985 feature film version – Bollard thinks Agnes of God has aged well.

“I think it’s even more relevant, if anything, than when it was first written, with everything going on with science and religion today,” she said.

The play is all about questioning belief systems, but not necessarily demolishing them, she said. And it’s not only religious faith that’s being scrutinized under the microscope.

“Dr. Livingstone goes back to questioning her beliefs, too,” she said. “She’d stopped questioning – science had become a religion for her.”

“I think it’s interesting that both of these women have projected onto Agnes what they think they believe – it’s something that happens to women a lot. They’re using her to fulfill their own sense of need. But this poor girl who has been treated badly, and had all these bad things happen – nobody looks out for her.”

Pielmeier’s canvas is composed of a whole range of greys, she agreed, not just simple black-and-white absolutes.

“It’s so well-written,” she said, adding that she remembers playing the role of Agnes herself in her early 20s, in a production by Delta’s Act One Players that was part of the B.C. Festival of the Arts.

“As I reread it now, I realize that I had no idea what the play was about at that point,” she admits, with a certain amount of chagrin.

In its time, Bollard said, strong themes have caused Agnes of God to be denounced from pulpits and productions have even been the subject of bomb threats.

Production partner Geoff Giffin received an email from a friend reminding him that in Michigan, as recently as 1985, a local parish priest told the congregation that attending a local production of the play would constitute committing a sin.

She’s not expecting as extreme a reaction for her production, but she’s not shying away from controversy either.

“There are a lot of feminist undertones in the play as well,” she said.

“I hope people come out of the play wanting to talk about it and debate it. I’d love that to happen, because I’ll learn as well. I’ll fight my corner, but I’ll learn from it.

“Debate is good – if people are passionate about the play, I say bring it on.”

 

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