Walpole plays the titular Agnes, a 21-year-old novice nun suspected of giving birth at her convent, then strangling the newborn and discarding the body in a wastebasket. But Agnes claims to remember nothing about the night in question. A seemingly gentle soul with an angelic singing voice, she comes across as an unlikely perpetrator of such a grisly act.
Court-appointed psychiatrist Martha Livingstone (Curry) arrives at the convent with the task of evaluating Agnes’s mental state and recommending a course of action, which could include prison time or admittance to a psychiatric ward. Miriam Ruth (Ingvarsson), the convent’s mother superior, posits the possibility that the child’s conception was a divine act. As the investigation plays out, it comes to light that each character is sparring with her own personal demons.
Curry is fearless as the chain-smoking Martha, a former Catholic who abandoned religion after her sister died at a convent. She manifests Martha’s deep-seated pain in subtle tics and trembles, which belie the smile that her character strains to maintain. As Miriam, a onetime matriarch who grew estranged from her family and turned to the convent in middle age, Ingvarsson delivers a finely tuned performance that toggles between personable, commanding and distressed.
While Curry and Ingvarsson are long-respected standouts of D.C. theater, Walpole is this production’s breakout. As the narrative unspools, we learn to that Agnes had an absent father and a drunk, abusive mother. At once portraying wide-eyed innocence and self-loathing, Walpole delivers much of her dialogue with an almost song-like lyricism. When Agnes comes unhinged, it’s all the more devastating.
Although “Agnes of God” premiered in 1979, made it to Broadway in 1982 and got an Oscar-nominated film (adapted for the screen by Pielmeier) in 1985, its relevance endures. The central mystery leads to a timeless rumination on spirituality, and the play’s conversations about trauma, body image and mental health are even more pointed when seen through a contemporary lens.
Parts of the script have also been updated. A passing mention of the Internet places this revival in more modern times, and Hammerly secured Pielmeier’s blessing to include a scene from the film that wasn’t in the original play. It’s a warmly funny and foundationally important sequence in which Miriam and Martha share a cigarette and wonder whether the likes of Saint Peter and Mary Magdalene would’ve smoked, had tobacco been popular in their day. Curry and Ingvarsson have a ball with the scene, which helps establish their common ground.
Greg Stevens’s spare set design takes a triangular shape befitting the three-pronged conflict, with immersive seating on each side. William D’Eugenio’s lighting effectively communicates scene transitions throughout the flashback-driven narrative. And Kenny Neal’s sound design lends an ethereal air to Walpole’s reverberating vocals. Otherwise, the production subscribes to a “less is more” belief as Curry, Ingvarsson and Walpole seize the stage. With that holy trinity of performers, any other approach would have been a sin.
Agnes of God, by John Pielmeier. Directed by Rick Hammerly. Set, Greg Stevens; costumes, Alison Johnson; lighting, William D’Eugenio; sound, Kenny Neal. About 1 hour and 45 minutes. Through Nov. 24 at Anacostia Arts Center, 1231 Good Hope Road SE. Tickets: $23. 202-355-9449 or factory449.org.