Actress Hollie Mann makes a magnificent "Agnes of God" in Ashland. 

The Right Mann for the Job

"Agnes of God"
Hanover Arts and Activities Center, Ashland
8 p.m., Thursday-Sunday
Through May 9

The pivotal riddle of "Agnes of God" concerns young Sister Agnes: Is she a blessed innocent who drinks from a heavenly tap or a certifiable nut job capable of strangling her newborn child to death? Or maybe something else altogether? For the play to succeed, the actress who plays Agnes must keep you guessing about her true nature until the final curtain falls, and even after that.

In casting Hollie Mann as the troubled nun in the current Ashland Stage company production of "Agnes," director Staci Trowbridge made her best decision. Her next best judgment was choosing to play the role of court-appointed psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingstone herself. And by recruiting Jolene Carroll to fill the formidable shoes of the play's third character, Mother Superior Miriam Ruth, Trowbridge scores a nice trifecta.

As Agnes, Mann has an ethereal presence that can convince you of her divine innocence. But in skillfully subtle ways, the actress shows that there are demons tormenting her character — a slight twist to her features when she first faces Dr. Livingstone, minuscule nervous tics before the doctor puts her under hypnosis. Like Mother Superior, you want to believe that there is no way this simple, beautiful girl could have a secret sexual tryst, successfully hide the pregnancy, and then commit a deplorable act of infanticide. But like the doctor, you want to know the source of those demons, and to know what truly happened that fateful night that Agnes claims she can't remember.

Trowbridge's Dr. Livingstone is forceful, composed and a little frigid, perfectly capturing the character's devotion to logic. She faces off repeatedly with the equally powerful — and equally flawed — Mother Superior. Their battles are theatrical classics; how often do you hear a character say, "Who the hell do you think you are?" to a nun not just once, but twice. The substantial tension of the play is only broken during the doctor's scene-setting monologues, and even here Trowbridge avoids undue overemoting. Her restraint throughout the play makes the moment when her composure finally cracks that much more poignant.

A veteran of television and New York theater, Carroll embodies the earthy, straightforward nature of Mother Miriam. This is not a pristine, passionless nun but one who has tasted life in the form of a bad marriage, two thankless children, and two packs of cigarettes a day. Thanks to Carroll's performance, you feel the hard knocks this woman has faced but also respect her unwavering faith and understand her devotion to Agnes.

The Ashland production is appropriately spare. Two chairs and a table adorn the simple set, designed by Arthur Brill. Costume designer Amelia McNanny puts Dr. Livingstone in a black-and-white blouse, reinforcing the character's desire for simple answers. Most effective is the uncredited sound design which offers up a particularly eerie baby's cry at one of the play's pivotal moments.

Heard throughout the play are echoes of Mann's lovely voice, another testament to her suitability for this role. Whether Agnes is truly "of God" is for you to decide, but there is little doubt that Mann playing this role is a divine cosmic

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