January 26, 2019

"The Convent" in Uninspiring

The Convent, the new play by Jessica Dickey, is like a mashup of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds about a disparate group of people trying to find themselves on a spiritual retreat, and Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, which starts off with an imaginary dinner party attended by famous women from history. Alas, this new work, now playing at The A.R.T./New York Theatres thru Feb. 17, is nowhere near as good as either.

And that saddens me because I had been a great fan of Dickey’s debut play The Amish Project, which is not only a sensitive recreation of the 2006 slaughter of five young girls in a one-room Amish school in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, but a rare theatrical meditation on the grace of faith (click here to read my review of that one).

Faith plays a role in the new play too. Dickey says she wrote it during a period of emotional upheaval in her own life (click here to read more about that) and this time out, she places a group of contemporary women of various ages and personality types at a retreat in a medieval convent in the south of France, where they ditch their cellphones, don peasant gowns and seek inspiration from the lives of female saints like Teresa of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen as they try to sort through the problems in their lives.

The convent is led by a sixtysomething woman called the Mother Abbess (Wendy vanden Heuvel) who hands out Oprahesque platitudes and hallucinogenic-spiked drinks to help the process along. It’s not a bad premise but the plot gets hijacked when a rebellious woman (Samantha Soule) shows up at the convent, flouting its rules, flirting with the other participants and dropping heavy hints that she knows secrets that could create additional havoc, even though the eventual revelation is hardly a surprise.

Meanwhile, each of the other women strikes the one note the play has assigned her—the ditzy free spirit, the good-girl high achiever, the innocent naïf, the repressed do-gooder and, in the sole novel twist, a nun who’s lost her faith—over and over again. They’re not given much in the way of motivation or backstory but each gets the chance to chew the tapestry and under Daniel Talbott’s lax direction, they gnaw away to varying effect.

The one saving grace for this production is the set by scenic designer Raul Abrego who seats the audience on opposite sides of a transverse and then projects images created by Katherine Freer on large screens at either end to simulate the chapel, refectory and gardens of the cloister. Their work sparks a sense of wonder that the play itself only aspires to.

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