When the lights go up on the mezzanine stage at A.R.T./New York Theatres, there’s no question you’ve been transported from West 53rd St. to the inside of a medieval convent. Great stone walls surround the spare, open playing space. Two women in long, monastic robes greet more contemporary-looking characters as they arrive, exhausted from ascending an apparently steep assemblage of offstage steps. These steps could very well represent the more substantive, very modern, identity-seeking challenges all of these women have endured in order to arrive at this temporary, spiritual refuge. A paralyzing loss of faith. An orphaned childhood spent in a cult environment. An escape from a marriage collapsing upon the jagged shoals of an antiquated, paternal sense of ownership. When Wendy vanden Heuvel quietly enters as Mother Abbess, strikingly self-possessed and regal with long, flowing hair and robe, and addresses the women, the picture is complete. And for the next 90 minutes or so, The Convent—a new, gorgeously lyrical work by Jessica Dickey—essentially battles itself to come up with a sense of intimate, human connection that can match this early, presentational display of authority and authenticity.
The Convent is about both the individual journeys of these women as well as the collective bonds they form with each other, all in a quest for a measure of contentment. And when Patti (Samantha Soule), the last of these seekers, arrives on the scene and jarringly, searingly, seems to implicates Mother Abess in her own pained peregrinations, the play lays bare the foundation for its most potent theme: the clash between the desire for purely self-serving self-knowledge and the need to assume at least a basic, primal responsibility for one’s own life.
These ideas are as luminous as the language Dickey has created for her characters, a formal idiom that draws on a poetic foundation but still allows the women to speak in a thoroughly modern idiom. This clash between old and new is often striking and magnetic, as with this mini-prayer uttered by Tina (Brittany Anikka Liu), a very young soul searcher:
I want a man with a beard.
Who owns a bakery.
And does community things on the weekend.
Like ecstatic dancing.
I want to not be ashamed of my psoriasis so I can have sex more often. I want to have sex more often.
The production’s design elements elegantly moor the play. The set, sound and lighting design (Raul Abrego, Erin Bednarz, and Joel Moritiz, respectively) richly fuses a dark, somber world and gives it a dense theatricality that keeps our eyes trained on the stage. Katherine Freer’s video projections seamlessly allow us to inhabit an austere, religious habitat as freely as the platform of a New York subway environment.
At times, it can be difficult to imagine these characters truly bonding beyond their explicitly stated wish to do so. The play is missing those elusive moments that allow us to inhabit, however briefly, the internal lives of these people through their externally expressed words and behaviors. And while the direction (Daniel Tolbett) is crisp and energetic in its pacing and choreography, the characters too often resort to screaming their frustrations and anger. That the play succeeds as often as it does is a tribute both to the production’s formal elements as well as Dickey’s virtuosic abilities with language. Her words insure that you are irrevocably, helplessly, drawn to the stage.
The Convent is presented by Weathervane Productions, Rising Phoenix Repertory, in association with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. The production runs through February 17 at the Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 West 53rd Street). Tickets are on sale at weathervanetheater.org and are also available by phone at (866) 811-4111. Tickets can also be purchased at the theatre one hour prior to performance times. Note: there is no late seating.