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Agnes of God 

You gotta love a theater company that has a vagina painted in the women's bathroom. It's a bit off the wall. 

Just like Off the Wall Productions.

They're the new kid in town, though they're tucked away in the old VFW building in downtown Washington. But if Off the Wall Productions keeps its standards and production values as high and solid as in Agnes of God, the first play of its third season, it will become a major theatrical force.

Of that I am cocksure.

A baby has been found, wrapped in a bloody sheet and stuffed in a wastepaper basket, in the room of Sister Agnes, a novice who may -- or may not -- have given birth to and/or killed the baby.

Loosely based on a true story, John Pielmeier's 1979 work gets off the ground fast and furiously, then shifts gears, exploring clashing religious beliefs and nagging moral dilemmas that refuse to simply disappear into the air along with the cigarette smoke that's like a fourth character.

Ultimately, who killed the baby, and who the father is, are of no importance; what matters is that life holds the possibility of miracles.

As Dr. Martha Livingston, the narrator appointed by the court to determine whether Agnes is fit to stand trial, Virginia Wall Gruenert manages to flow from hard-nosed atheist shrink to a curious, faith-searching healer in a slow, even keel.

Erika Cuenca is so comfortable and so convincing as Agnes that she left me squirming in my seat. Mother Miriam may insist Agnes is "a slate that hasn't been touched except by God," but something or someone has touched this simple-minded girl whose take on reality is as ravaged as the baby that may (or may not) have come out "down there."

Ingrid Sonnichsen's performance as Mother Miriam is feisty and funny and flawless as she misleads us to believe she is holier than thou. And director Maggie Balsley's trimming manages not to hurt the play.

The play's last moment is a Vermeer tableau: candles flicker against the marbleized convent walls, the faint smell of sweet perfume lingering in the air. Agnes covered in blood and reaching out; the less-than-superior Mother trapped inside a metal cage of deceit and lies. Time is frozen now, as Dr. Livingston has the final gasp, the final words, pondering life and death and Agnes' reminder that "God doesn't make mistakes." Is this the happy ending, the alternate last reel, she has spent her life looking for? 

 

Agnes of God continues through Oct. 17. Off the Wall Theater, 147 North Main St., Washington. 724-873-3576 or www.proartstickets.org

click to enlarge Faith baste: Erika Cuenca (front) and Virginia Wall Gruenert in Off the Wall's Agnes of God
  • Faith baste: Erika Cuenca (front) and Virginia Wall Gruenert in Off the Wall's Agnes of God

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