REVIEW: “The Convent”
Medieval convents were places where monastic women lived ascetic and cloistered lives devoted to the solemnity of prayer and contemplation. These nuns enjoyed self-sustaining communities free of the male gaze, in which they could learn to read and write, and operate their own hierarchy absent male power.
Convents were, in fact, the only institutional option for female education during the Middle Ages, providing a precious, safe space for women unlike any other. Today, many active convents, or monasteries, across the world remain open to travelers seeking a safe (and affordable) place for rest, quiet solace, and reflection.
In Jessica Dickey’s new play “The Convent”, which opened last night in a Rattlestick Playwrights Theater production at the Mezzanine space of A.R.T/New York Theatres, six women of disparate backgrounds participate in a retreat at a medieval convent in the South of France.
This role-play retreat is designed by Mother Abbess (Wendy vanden Heuvel) to replicate the ways in which nuns lived in the Middle Ages—robes, 3:00 am prayers, and all—as a way for women to break free of conventions of male leadership—“women cannot follow men”—and find their own guidance from within.
A classic setup featuring strangers arriving in a strange new place one by one, out of breath from ascending the stairs, introduces three new retreaters: Jill (Margaret Odette), an exasperated lawyer trapped in a marriage, Tina (Brittany Anikka Liu), a chipper millennial coping with her mother’s loss, and Wilma (Lisa Ramirez), a nun who has stopped praying; two repeat retreaters who work with Mother Abbess: Dimlin (Annabel Capper), a dutiful Brit, and Bertie (Amy Berryman) a sheltered girl raised in a cult; and one mysterious interloper: Patti (Samantha Soule), whose angry presence is explained in time.
Under Mother Abbess’ instruction, the women share their wants during nightly prayer at dinner, drink a hallucinogenic concoction meant to reveal their greatest obstacle, and take a nomen card, each featuring a different mystic Christian female leader—Teresa of Ávila, Clare of Assisi, Hildegard von Bingen etc.—to study and assume as a personae during their stay.
Slowly, each of the women reveals more about what has brought them here, and how they might emerge more in touch with the divine and centered in their own gender and sexuality.
Did I mention “The Convent” is also a comedy? Well, therein lies one of several problems with the play. Whole sequences are clearly written to be funny but, as performed under the direction of Daniel Talbott, are painfully not. Other portions of the play involve moments of magic and serious drama that is unearned. The tone remains unclear throughout, never more glaringly undefined than when the women share in singing Madonna’s “Cherish” and “Like a Prayer”.
The central problem, though, is that nearly every character remains a mystery to the audience. Without understanding more about them, it is hard to develop investment in their arcs. The reveal of Patti’s purpose in coming back to the convent is obvious, declarations of love between two of the women amount to a shrug, and the closing message is not much more than an echo of Mother Abbess’ welcoming speech from nearly 100 minutes earlier.
“The Convent” boasts a promising and intriguing setup that is, unfortunately, bungled in execution. The piazza-like flagstone setting by Raul Abrego is impressive, and combined with projections by Katherine Freer, provides a clearly defined and evocative sense of place. If only Ms. Dickey’s characters were as well-sketched.
Bottom Line: In Jessica Dickey’s new play “The Convent” a group of women participate in a retreat at a medieval convent in the South of France; the play boasts a promising and intriguing setup that is, unfortunately, bungled in execution due to underdeveloped characters and an imbalanced tone.
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
A.R.T./New York Theatres
502 West 53rd Street
New York, NY 10019
Running Time: 100 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: January 24, 2019
Final Performance: February 17, 2019