A playwright on the rise, Jessica Dickey deals out intriguing stories. Among them: The Amish Project is a fictional consideration of the Nickel Mines schoolhouse shooting. Row After Row studies Civil War reenactors and then slips back in time. The Rembrandt sees a masterpiece come to life when a museum guard dares to touch it.
Dickey’s latest play, The Convent, unfolds within a modern-day retreat that simulates a medieval abbey, where six women, troubled in various ways, briefly withdraw from the world to connect with their inner selves under the guidance of a spiritual leader.
Cool idea, right? Certainly many possibilities, dramatic, spiritual, and otherwise, abound in The Convent, which is being produced by three companies, including Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, at the Mezzanine space of A.R.T New York Theatres.
This production disappoints, however, and hampers the effectiveness of the play, which possesses some positive merits, although the story doesn’t fulfill its potential.
The show looks beautiful, at least, on a profile stage where the audience sits on either side of the spacious playing area. Designer Raul Abrego provides an airy courtyard for the convent that is bordered by ancient stone walls and flowering plants. Joel Moritz’s smart lighting design also suggests interior rooms as needed. The lovely projections designed by Katherine Freer range from mellow vistas of fields of waving wheat to colorful medieval tapestries.
Retreating to this locale are Dimlin (Annabel Capper), a middle-aged, uptight, English heiress, and Bertie (Amy Berryman), her nice, clueless, younger chum; Wilma (Lisa Ramirez), an actual nun now wistfully out of touch with God; Tina (Brittany Anikka Liu), an excitable stoner and the wounded survivor of a Branch Davidian-type commune; Jill (Margaret Odette), on the lam from a troubled marriage; and Patti (Samantha Soule), a cynical provocateur who happens to be a repeat visitor to these cloistered premises.
Clad in turquoise-colored habits, the women are advised by the Mother Abbess (Wendy vanden Heuvel), the establishment’s founder. She doles out to each one the identity of a real-life medieval mystic, such as Hildegarde of Bingen or Teresa of Avila, as a role model to help them discover their better, stronger selves.
Confessional prayers, ecstatic screaming, and frenzied dancing now and again erupt as the women strive to realign their lives. Let’s not disclose their eventual realizations except to note how the basis for the conflict simmering between the Mother Abbess and Patti is obvious from the get-go, and that the Dimlin-Bertie relationship is too ingenuous to be believable nowadays.
Dickey maintains the story on an elevated plane without delving into the drudgery of these characters actually trying to run the convent along medieval lines, which might inject some much-needed comedy into the proceedings. The playwright contributes some poetic language as the women occasionally converse about spiritual issues.
Unfortunately, the beatific thoughts tend to get lost within the capacious setting. A hurried pacing by Daniel Talbott, the director, who delivers the show in 95 minutes, also skims through the talk. The artistic director of Rising Phoenix Repertory, one of the play’s producers, Talbott possibly has been attached to this project from the beginning, but perhaps another director might be better attuned to the sensitivities of the characters—some of whom appear to be underwritten—and the thoughts they voice.
Samantha Soule’s forceful depiction of Patti, all blazing eyes and mocking smiles, helps to drive the story, but other performances are not so striking. Certainly Wendy vanden Heuvel could ingrain the Mother Abbess with a little more grandeur.
While there’s interesting stuff going on in The Convent—the notion of dissatisfied contemporary women playing make-believe medieval nuns in order to search for their souls is pretty wild—this play and its characters scarcely broach the story’s possibilities. It may well be worth Dickey’s time and effort to give her drama several more spins through the mill.