Well-done drama explores beliefs in conflict

Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST) has truly blessed Charlotte by casting three outstanding actresses in its powerful new production, "Agnes of God."

Cynthia Farbman Harris, as Dr. Martha Livingstone, Paula Baldwin as Mother Superior Miriam Ruth and Lauren Dortch Crozier as Sister Agnes all give superb performances in this deeply charged play. They are all emotionally wrung out by the time the curtain call arrives, and for good reason.

Written by John Pielmeier, this 1979 work is loosely based on a true story. A baby has been found, wrapped in a bloody sheet and stuffed in a wastepaper basket, in the room of Sister Agnes. She may or may not have given birth to and/or killed the baby.

Dr. Livingston is the court-appointed psychiatrist whose job it is to evaluate Agnes' sanity. Livingston goes far and above her job description as she tries to burrow into the psyches of both Agnes and Mother Superior in determining what happened and who is responsible. Harris, as Livingston, manages to seamlessly and poignantly transform from hard-nosed atheist shrink into a curious, faith-searching healer who clings to her own set of beliefs just as strongly as the nuns.

Agnes has no memory of the birth or death of the child. When we first meet her, she seems possessed of a beatific joy, as if she hears lovely harmonies to which the rest of us are deaf. Crozier exudes a quiet innocence and goodwill, making her eventual display of extreme emotion even more heartbreaking. Baldwin, as her fierce protector, Mother Superior, is wonderfully complex, suggesting a strength and solidity that's miles from stereotype.

Watching the devastation of Crozier as she relives, under hypnosis, the agonizing birth of her impossible baby, seeing the dual forces of Harris and Baldwin swing away at each other like two battered prizefighters who want the opponent destroyed, we're made spectators not only of a suspenseful play, but also of fundamental antagonisms that run deep beneath our culture. This is a work about primary things: theism vs. atheism; miracles vs. cynicism; parents who, contrary to all love and logic, brutalize their children; and about innocence being truly lost.

CAST's tradition of total immersion begins as you enter the building, with box office workers dressed as nuns and ushers dressed as priests. The show is being presented in CAST's 56-seat theater in the round, making for a very intimate experience. Michael Simmons' direction is seamless and well-modulated for the space. The effective, minimalist set by Tim Baxter-Ferguson includes a flower painted on the floor with a Rorschach inkblot in the center surrounded by petals depicting various scientific symbols (infinity, DNA, the Darwin fish).

Dr. Livingston has the final gasp, the final words, pondering life and death and Agnes' reminder that "God doesn't make mistakes." Ultimately, the mystery of who killed the baby, and who the father is, are of no importance; what matters is that life can still hold the possibility of miracles.