Three women will take the stage of the Yale Repertory Theatre from Oct. 10 to 12 in “Agnes of God,” the Yale Dramatic Association’s second Fall Ex.
Written in 1979 by American playwright John Pielmeier, “Agnes of God” tells the story of a novice nun who gives birth and insists that the child was born of an immaculate conception. A psychiatrist is brought in to evaluate whether the nun is telling the truth, and clashes with the convent’s Mother Superior during the investigation. The title is a pun on the Latin phrase “Agnus Dei,” which means “Lamb of God.” The play addresses mental illness, trauma and the tensions and parallels between science and religion.
Director Alexandra Thomas ’21 said that she stumbled upon the script for “Agnes of God” while searching for shows with primarily female casts in order to commemorate the anniversary of coeducation at Yale. 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the matriculation of women to Yale College and the 150th anniversary of the first female students at the University.
“It’s about women, but it’s not about the fact that they’re women,” Thomas said. “They’re just three very strong people who have been through a lot — and are broken because of it. The discussions they have are so well-educated and insightful, and there’s never a moment in their dialogue that is unnecessarily hostile. It’s just always this continuous exchange of ideas.”
Dramat president Joseph Bosco ’20 said that the Dramat executive board was particularly excited about “Agnes of God” because putting on an all-female play this fall is a timely way to showcase women at Yale.
Thomas said that the Yale Rep is the perfect space to stage this show because it was originally built as the Calvary Baptist Church. Evan Billups ’20, who plays the young nun Agnes, said that the theatre’s history and high ceilings make the space feel especially appropriate.
Sarah Valeika ’22, who plays Miriam Ruth, the convent’s Mother Superior, said that the theatre’s history as a church is both “eerie and fabulous.”
“In a way, the story fills the space,” Valeika said. “Especially because it’s a pretty intense play, the fact that there’s actually more space for it to happen, and hang in the air and settle there, can make it more unsettling … But at the same time, the vulnerability of being in such an open space with so few people really contributes both to the story and to the experience of the people acting the story, in getting into the mindspace of feeling vulnerable and exposed and on the defensive.”
Thomas, who is a Theater Studies and Psychology double major, said that her knowledge in psychology has helped her stage mental illness.
“One thing we realized very quickly with the show is that every character comes into it with some form of trauma,” Thomas said.
She said that working on the show has led her to reevaluate her knowledge of trauma and challenged her to consider how to depict difficult topics in an honest and responsible way.
Bosco described the play as an “intersection between art and psychology,” and added that Thomas’ academic interests enable her to “really strip apart the different layers of the piece and get at the raw emotion of the characters.”
“The setting itself is such a charged one, whether it’s a psychiatrist’s office or a convent,” Valeika said. “Both of those are places where people are asked to be brutally honest, kind of stark, plain-white colorless environments where you’re just asked to bare your soul.”
Valeika, who is also the production’s dramaturg, said that the show required detailed research into religious symbolism, mental illness and the state of the field of psychology in the 1980s — the time period in which the team decided to set the play.
Billups said that she has found portraying trauma to be both physically and emotionally taxing.
“Even though it’s not you, you play the truth of that, so you feel it in your body,” said Billups.
According to Thomas, a key element of the rehearsal process was ensuring that the actors felt safe. Valeika said that Thomas skillfully facilitated communication between the cast members, both on- and off-stage.
Thomas said that the team has tried to pace the “heavy, complex topics” in a “digestible” way for the audience. She added that she hopes the play will open discussions about trauma and the relationship between science and religion.
“Ultimately what I want this play to be able to communicate, is that it is a noble goal to seek truth, to want the answers and to believe in something, and you should let yourself believe,” Valeika said. “But just because you believe in something doesn’t mean that you know the ultimate answers why. I want this play to be one that people bring home and talk about, and continue to chew on … I think at the end of the day, it’s about coming to terms with uncertainty.”
“Agnes of God” will run from Oct. 10 to 12, with shows at 8 p.m. each evening and an additional afternoon show at 2 p.m. on Oct. 12 in the Yale Repertory Theatre on Chapel Street.
Carrie Zhou | firstname.lastname@example.org