Agnes of God and The Elephant Man | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
click to enlarge Patricia Cena, Abigail Lis-Perlis and Robin Beruh. - PHOTO COURTESY OF STEPHEN L. CHESS.
Photo courtesy of Stephen L. Chess.
Patricia Cena, Abigail Lis-Perlis and Robin Beruh.

In some ways, Agnes of God and The Elephant Man are almost mirror images. Agnes (1979) and Elephant (1982) opened back when Broadway still regularly offered storytelling in a theatrical style instead of movie-influenced spectacle. Each play is based on a true story, and both have enjoyed long lives at regional and community theaters.

On another level, John Pielmeier's Agnes and Bernard Pomerance's Elephant are concerned with societal "freaks," and with how "normal" people slowly begin to identify with them.

Agnes is a novice nun discovered one night covered in blood with a strangled newborn in a wastebasket. She never knew she was pregnant, knows nothing of the murder and, being cloistered, could never have had contact with a man. So is the father of the child ... God the Father? Mother Superior Miriam believes Agnes to be touched by the divine and wants no part of the court-ordered psychiatrist, Dr. Martha Livingstone, assigned to ascertain Agnes' mental fitness.

John Merrick is a man so hideously deformed that he is exhibited in a Victorian circus as "The Elephant Man." Exploited and abandoned, he is taken into the Royal London Hospital under the care of Dr. Frederick Treeves, who can't cure him but can bring him solace and refined society during his final years.

Both Agnes and Merrick are written as innocents, and that purity causes profound changes within those around them. Though Agnes of God is the better-written play -- Elephant Man never quite overcomes its gimmicky feel -- both are intelligent and entertaining pieces of theater.

Actors Civic Theater's production of Agnes features strong performances by Robin Beruh, Patricia Cena and Abigail Lis-Perlis, but Mary Chess Randolph's muddied and haphazard direction continually trips them up.

Kelly Colleen McMahon's direction for the visiting Ninth Wave version of The Elephant Man is strong throughout, with several moving performances, notably Gwen Morton as Mrs. Kendall, and Patrick Curley and Corey Rieger as Merrick and Treeves.


AGNES OF GOD continues through Sun., April 10. Father Ryan Arts Center, 420 Chartiers Ave., McKees Rocks. 412-394-3353 or

THE ELEPHANT MAN continues through Sat., April 9. Ninth Wave at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co., 542 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-394-3353 or

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