Any community theater director will tell you that casting is 90 percent of the job. And Terri Wilkes was very fortunate to have enlisted the services of such established talents as Candace DiLullo (“Antigone”), Molly Galano (“Wit”) and Cheryl Games (“Dinner With Friends”) in her current Victorian Players’ production of “Agnes of God.”
But choosing the right vehicle is equally imperative, and on that count, Wilkes’ good luck apparently ran out. Howlingly pretentious and larded with enough gaseous bromides (“God is you, or rather, you are God”) to float the Hindenburg, John Pielmeier’s ploddingly earnest 1982 drama is singularly unworthy of its starry trifecta of thespian thoroughbreds.
Written at a time when the Roman Catholic Church was really taking it on the chin in American theater (Bill C. Davis’ equally popular “Mass Appeal” titillated audiences with gay and alcoholic priests two years earlier), the pregnant nun at the center of “AOG” seemed like just another slice of post-“Exorcist” Catholic kitsch. Considering the play’s wacky premise — and equally risible treatment — a more appropriate title might have been “Nunsense” (Pielmeier actually beat Dan Groggins’ cash-cow perennial to the stage by three years).
After the rash of male- centric shows that have opened recently (“The Pillowman,” “I Am My Own Wife,” et al), I was really looking forward to basking in the collective radiance of these three remarkable ladies. Alas, the subpar material soundly defeats them at every turn. While watching the Vic’s “AOG,” I actually began to wonder whether Pielmeier had secretly intended for his play to be a comedy. The situations are certainly risible enough, and much of the dialogue is as painful on the ears as it must have been for the actors to recite.
Poor Galano has the worst of it. Her character (court-appointed psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingstone) is wildly overwritten, and prone to delivering ludicrously prosaic monologues directly to the audience. Games’ Mother Miriam Ruth is Pielmeier’s most lazily written creation, and her cornball attempts at humor wouldn’t have been out of place on “The Flying Nun” (“Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” Mother Miriam says upon meeting the shrink for the first time). DiLullo fares best, probably because Agnes is the most compelling figure in the play. A 21-year-old novitiate who recently gave birth to an infant found dead in a waste basket, the young nun has been emotionally stunted thanks to a lifetime of mental and physical abuse at the hands of her monstrous mother. The fact that DiLullo somehow manages to make Agnes both teasingly enigmatic and heartbreakingly poignant is a testament to her formidable skills. If only Pielmeier hadn’t written her tragic story like a cheesy episode of “Law and Order: CI.”
That overly literal approach isn’t helped by Wilkes’ decision to opt for the most obvious directorial choices. With a play this ham-fisted, subtlety and restraint are the only way to go, and neither are much in evidence here.
The minimalist set, Ellen Licitra’s elegant lighting design and Kerri Rickard’s ghoulishly convincing blood effects are first-rate. It’s the play itself — dated (psychobabble is so 1970s!), dreary and on the verge of self-parody — that rankles.
“Agnes of God” runs weekends through April 3 at the Victorian Players Theater, 702 Mahoning Ave. Curtain times are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays. For reservations, call 330-746-5455.