The grand question of faith — in what do you believe and how strongly do you believe it? — is at the heart of John Pielmeier's Agnes of God, staged this week by Avalon Theatre Company under the direction of John Contini. This three-character play is seemingly set up to pit rationality against religion with the fate of the title character as the stakes, but Pielmeier keeps adding weight to one side of the argument and then the other so that the scales are almost always balanced. It's up to you to rest your thumb on the side of your choice and tip the scales. And if you can't or won't decide at the end of the evening — well, that's a choice, too.
Doctor Livingstone (Erin Kelley) is the court-appointed psychiatrist who must determine if young Sister Agnes (Sabra Sellers) is mentally fit to stand trial for the murder of her child, born in the convent and left strangled in a wastebasket. Opposing her in every sense is Mother Miriam (Linda Kennedy), the head of Sister Agnes' order and a legitimate badass. On a single set that represents both Mother Miriam's office and Doctor Livingstone's office — with Agnes seated dead center in most scenes — Livingstone struggles to discover who the father is and who killed the infant, while Mother Miriam shields Agnes from any line of questioning that veers too close to answering either question.
Kelley's character is hampered by some pulpy monologues about her past (her sister was a nun and died in a convent from a neglected medical condition, and she has some mommy issues), but Kelley rises above these weaker moments to impart some humanity to the hard-edged Livingstone. The doctor's concern for Agnes' well-being passes far beyond professional, and in her desire to pull Agnes out of her cloistered life and into the real world, she is as zealous as any missionary. The symbolism of Livingstone getting a second chance at saving her sister from the nunnery's benighted ways would be heavy-handed if Kelley didn't play her so honestly; her naked ambition for revenge reveals a weakness she doesn't know she has.
As her sparring partner and occasional confidante Mother Miriam, Linda Kennedy is appropriately revelatory. An earthy woman who entered the convent after a flawed marriage and two children, Miriam doesn't believe in the possibility of modern saints or that Agnes' dead child was divine in origin, but she still holds out hope for a miracle in Agnes' case. Kennedy hides massive amounts of power in her compact frame, and when she directs it with righteous fury at Livingstone's hypocrisy and unprofessionalism, she blasts all the air out of the room.
Sabra Sellers plays Agnes with the wide-eyed mien of pure innocence, her speech so round-voweled and guileless that butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. The play builds toward a final answer to the question of the child's paternity and its death, and Sellers re-enacts under hypnosis exactly what happened the night she gave birth. Without giving away the pertinent details, it's safe to say that Sellers makes the moment a horripilating revelation that offers an answer without providing any comfort or relief. Even with the truth laid out before us, we're required to decide whom we're going to believe. Do you want unsatisfying pragmatism, or unsatisfying faith?