Monday, February 26, 2024


By Ruth Ross

Last Saturday night, the most extraordinary thing happened at the Summit Playhouse.

For the entire 1.5 hour running time of their latest production, Agnes of God, you could have heard a pin drop. No one moved. No one coughed. No playbills rustled. The nearly sold-out audience members were so engrossed in the superb performances by the three actors onstage. (Right: Debora Carozza, Missy Renwick and Jennifer Padley)

It was one of the most moving nights of theater I have experienced recently—and you should too!

Written by John Pielmeier in 1979, Agnes of God tells the story of a novice nun who gives birth but does not believe she has. When the child is found dead, the young woman is accused of murder, and a psychiatrist and the mother superior of the convent clash during the resulting investigation. The title is a pun on the Latin phrase Agnus Dei ("lamb of God").

Because the play is dialogue heavy, it can be difficult for local theaters to stage. Yet the Summit Playhouse and Director Karen Thornton have assembled a trio of supremely talented actors who keep the tension ratcheted up and the audience engaged. Playing Dr. Martha Livingstone, Jennifer Padley (left) is onstage at all times. She convincingly conveys a myriad of feelings—nurturer, antagonist, hard-shelled court psychiatrist, atheist and faith-searcher. Her metamorphosis feels convincing and natural.

Her antagonist, Mother Miriam Ruth, is played with an engaging, though treacherous, wiliness by Debora Carozza (right; making her Summit Playhouse debut). With an interesting pre-convent background and a sure, plain-spoken delivery, she can temper the possibilities of miracles with the realities of today’s world. She is a worthy opponent to Dr. Livingston; the air crackles during some of their most heated exchanges. And Carozza’s sly smile and delight at smoking a cigarette make her feel real.

The third member of this trio, also making her Summit Playhouse debut as the accused, fragile, innocent, childlike novice Agnes, Missy Renwick (above, right) matches her castmates with the ability to sound convincing, despite the nonsense she spouts. Is she, as Mother Miriam avers, sane, off-center, or touched by God, or is she lying about the baby. Her abusive upbringing has affected her ability to think rationally—re-enacted under hypnosis—will certainly give the audience pause in judging her. Renwick switches from sounding sane to crazy in the blink of an eye and is very convincing too.

Karen Thornton’s very steady directorial hand is evident in the taut pacing and beautiful performances she elicits from her actors. This, her second time directing a Summit Playhouse production (the first was a stellar Diary of Anne Frank) marks her as a person exceptionally good at what she does! Her Director’s Notes are a lesson in dramaturgy!

Gordon Wiener’s spare set—three church windows, a desk and several chairs—forces us to focus on the battle of wills unfolding onstage. Samori Etienne, assisted by Wendy Roome, provides a church-y sound, with Gregorian chants sung by a choir, and Mark Reilly’s lighting design highlights the various actors and scenes quite well. Ann Lowe has provided appropriate nun’s habits for Sister Miriam and Agnes, along with a no-nonsense pantsuit for the psychiatrist.

The Summit Playhouse’s production of Agnes of God is testimony to the extraordinary talent found in local nonprofessional theaters. To my mind, this production rates right up there with Broadway and should not be missed.

It will run through March 9 at the playhouse, 10 New England Ave., Summit.

For information and tickets, visit online or call the box office at 908.273.2192.