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at the Orange Curtain Theatre

John Pielmeier's drama is all about tension: the tug of war between science and faith, personified by three complex women who form a puzzle that the playwright skillfully unravels bit by bit. The play's focus is Sister Agnes (Annemarie Ross), a novice who seems to have a unique connection with God. A dead newborn is discovered in her room. Did she hide a pregnancy, or is she protecting another nun? If hers, who is the baby's father, or was it born by immaculate conception? And did Agnes have a hand in the infant's death?

Sent by the courts to psychoanalyze this trusting yet defensive lamb is Dr. Martha Livingston (Barbara Barkley), who immediately clashes with Sister Miriam Ruth (Ruth Kurisu), the Mother Superior. Pielmeier shows that both women have crossed back and forth between secularism and devout faith: The atheist doctor is a lapsed Catholic, while the Mother Superior professes failure as a woman of the world, the impetus for her religious devotion.

The spiky text fairly bristles, but not in Steph Davis' sluggish staging. Ross comes off not as a beatific young woman who radiates joy, faith, and inner peace but rather as a simpleton with a small, whiny, infantile voice. Barkley has almost as little credibility, lacking this tense, chain-smoking, objective scientist's crispness and inner conflict and appearing, for the most part, like a displaced 1950s housewife. Kurisu carves the most complex character, lending depth and dimension to her portrait of a fierce protector of the Catholic Church in general and of Agnes in particular. All three characters are deeply conflicted, and Kurisu shows that hers isn't the picture of certainty she seems. Act 2 offers powerful hypnotherapy scenes and more assured work from Ross and Barkley, but too little and too late to rescue this wayward staging.

Presented by and at the Orange Curtain Theatre, 31776 El Camino Real, San Juan Capistrano. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m. Sun. 3 p.m. Sep. 7-29. (949) 412-3252.

Reviewed by Eric Marchese

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