BEFORE THE FILM, THERE WAS THE PLAY…
I had been writing for several years, not taking it seriously and supporting myself by my acting work, when I got an acting job at the 1977 Eugene O’Neill Playwrights’ Conference. I was so swept away by the work done there that I returned to New York City determined to go back to the O’Neill as a playwright. I wrote a play which made the semi-finals but not the final cut for the summer of ’78, and during that summer I did most of the initial work on Agnes.
For a good while I had been looking for an idea upon which to hang a play about questions of faith – looking, essentially, for a plot clothesline. About a year earlier I had seen a headline in the New York Post or the Daily News shouting “Nun Kills Baby!” I didn’t read the actual story, but something like nine months later I woke up in the middle of the night with an “Aha!” moment. The title was obvious – a bad liturgical pun – and the cast was kept to a minimum because I felt small, simple plays worked best at the O’Neill. I wanted to challenge myself to write full, rich women’s roles, and so the psychiatrist, who in the early planning stages was a man, became a woman. I submitted the play to the O’Neill, as well as to Jon Jory at Actors Theatre of Louisville, where I had worked a lot as an actor. On May 1, 1979, I got a call from my wife while I was visiting my sister in Florida – I had received a telegram informing me that my play had been accepted for the 1979 O’Neill Conference. At that moment I knew my life had changed.
The play was workshopped at the O’Neill (Dianne Weist played the title role) and subsequently received an amateur production in Kingston, Jamaica, a production I went to see a week after my father passed away in October. Jon Jory, in the meantime, accepted the play for the 1980 Humana Festival, where it premiered professionally. As a result of that production, the play received something like six regional productions the following year, although no New York producers saw it in Louisville. The second of these regional productions, at Center Stage in Baltimore, was attended by many producers, and I was put in the enviable position of having to choose between six offers for a New York production. I chose correctly, and Ken Waissman produced the play, opening it at the Music Box Theatre on March 31, 1982. It received rather mixed reviews (I have never been a darling of the critics, to put it mildly) but word-of-mouth spread, and once Amanda Plummer won a Tony for her performance, its future was assured.
A young nun is accused of murdering an infant she gave birth to in a cloistered convent. The psychiatrist assigned to her case meets opposition in the convent’s Mother Superior, and all three women explore questions of Faith, Memory, and the meaning of Sainthood.
AGNES: I’m not sick!
DOCTOR: But you’re troubled, aren’t you?
AGNES: That’s because you keep reminding me. If you go away then I’ll forget.
DOCTOR: And you’re unhappy.
AGNES: Everybody’s unhappy! You’re unhappy, aren’t you?
DOCTOR: Agnes – AGNES: Aren’t you?!
DOCTOR: Sometimes, yes.
AGNES: Only you think you’re lucky because you didn’t have a mother who said things to you and did things that maybe weren’t always nice, but that’s what you think, because you don’t know that my mother was a wonderful person, and even if you did know that you wouldn’t believe it because you think she was bad, don’t you.
DOCTOR: Agnes –
AGNES: Answer me! You never answer me!
DOCTOR: Yes, I do think your mother was wrong sometimes.
AGNES: But that was because of me, because I was bad, not her!
DOCTOR: What did you do?
AGNES: I’m always bad.
DOCTOR: What do you do?
AGNES: I breathe!