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Theatre in Review: The Convent (ART New York Theatres)

Samantha Soule, Margaret Odette. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.

In her new play, Jessica Dickey assembles half a dozen women in a medieval convent in the south of France for a decidedly oddball spiritual retreat. The place is run by the middle-aged Mother Abbess, a purely honorific title, since she belongs to no religious order; instead, she hosts a kind of halfway house for frazzled refugees from the frustrations of 21st-century womanhood. Upon arrival, each guest is handed a "Nomen card," representing a notable woman of Catholic Church history, such as Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, or Teresa of Avila. Mother Abbess, who tends toward oracular pronouncements, gives each arrival a book, which "contains information about your Nomen -- Who was she? How does she speak to your life? What is she trying to tell you? What is she a way for you to tell yourself?"

It's a peculiar conceit that the visitors should be contemplating women whose minds were profoundly fired by ideas of God, since what Mother Abbess has in mind is closer to St. Betty Friedan or St. Gloria Steinem. In an infelicitous echo of the latter's celebrated comments, Mother Abbess says, "A woman following a man is like a bicycle trying to ride on a train track; there's great information there, but it's not a match. You get what I'm saying?" Well, sort of. But if these great feminists were possessed of a sweeping vision of social change, the ladies of The Convent have their eyes firmly aimed at the nearest mirror. "There's nothing here to listen to but you," Mother Abbess says. "Let the socialized layers burn away, down to that dark wick. Down there, the sooty dark bottom. She is waiting to speak. And if you can bear to listen, you will step into the real wilderness, the real kingdom...yourself."

There's something unintentionally amusing about these so-called spiritual pursuits -- Teresa of Avila's The Interior Castles is referenced more than once, as if it were a self-actualization tome -- since the women of The Convent are almost entirely without inner lives. They're a shelf of empty vessels passing for characters, each defined by a single factoid. Bertie was raised on a WACO-style compound, about which we are told nothing; she is in love with Dimlin, a middle-aged heiress who is reluctant to return her affections, for reasons that are never explained. Tina, who misses her late mother, is apparently afflicted with psoriasis, a subject brought up only to be dropped. Wilma, a nun, has lost her faith, under circumstances that are never explored. The play mostly focuses on Jill, who wants to abandon her husband and legal career, "because all my life I've been a Good Girl. And f--k that," and Patti, a return -- and dissatisfied -- guest who has a major bone to pick to with Mother Abbess. The truth about their relationship is obvious long before it is revealed.

That there's a fine line between contemplation and navel-gazing is something with which The Convent is incapable of grappling. Each woman is made to stand up at dinner and reveal what she really, really wants out of life. (In one of the play's lamer attempts at humor, Tina's wish list includes "tits so big I have back problems" and to defecate on the desk of the high school teacher who undermined her self-confidence.) Later, they imbibe a mild hallucinogen while staring at "heads of kings" that are "an exact replica of the ones in the Museum de Cluny, in Paris." As Mother Abbess instructs, "After you drink from this chalice one of the heads of these kings will be replaced by a king in your life; someone you have throned and that you hold there, disrupting your connection to yourself." There are also sequences of ecstatic dancing, accompanied by singing and/or chanting "Like a Prayer," by that noted Catholic theologian, Madonna.

The Convent occasionally pauses to confront the possibility that unbridled selfishness might have its costs, especially in a nicely turned speech in which Jill imagines what it would be like to turn her life upside down. (She gets a good start on the process, having sex with Patti in every corner of the convent.) The main event, however, is the showdown in which we learn how, long ago, Mother Abbess made a decision with hugely destructive implications for Patti's future. Just when it seems that the script will actually probe all sides of this situation, it settles for saying that Patti should just snap out of it and get on with her life.

If you can buy the notion that we would live in a better world if everyone pursued their bliss and damn the consequences - a weird amalgam of flower power and Ayn Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness -- The Convent still suffers from deficiencies in the areas of character and conflict. Except for a rather awkwardly staged scene in which Mother Abbess' initial entrance is blocked by the other members of the cast, Daniel Talbott's direction keeps the action moving at a welcome clip. He can't get better than uneven results from his leading ladies, however. Margaret Odette makes a convincing case that Jill is legitimately tormented by her desire for a freer, gayer life, and Lisa Ramirez renders Wilma's crisis of faith with commendable restraint; she also offers a lovely reading from St. Teresa that hints at what real spirituality might be like. But the gifted Samantha Soule does frantic, overscaled work as Patti -- who is, admittedly, written as a one-woman offensive flank -- and Wendy vanden Heuvel is lumbered with Mother Abbess' Delphic statements, which often sound like they were written by Obi-Wan Kenobi. The others have to deal with characters so underwritten they barely exist.

The Convent is rendered attractively in Raul Abrego's set design, with its flagstone deck and stone walls at either end. (The audience is seated on two sides.) At times, Katherine Freer's projection design -- featuring wide-angle views of fields of lavender and wheat -- seems a little overbearing, bit it also features attractive, less-intrusive images of statuary and stained-glass windows that creep in ever so subtly. Joel Moritz's lighting, Tristan Raines' costumes (which are heavy on medieval robes), and Erin Bednarz's sound design are all solid achievements.

The final scene of The Convent whisks Patti back to New York, where she has an encounter with a homeless woman that climaxes in primal screams meant to suggest she has experienced an emotional breakthrough. I'm afraid this is as eloquent as the play gets. -- David Barbour

(25 January 2019)

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