It’s not so mind-boggling to go on a trip to get away from it all and find some perspective, but Jessica Dickey’s characters decide to willfully enter a convent. One nun and five very modern women, who don’t have strong religious convictions, enter into a medieval abbey to find their inner goddesses or saints. They’re led by Mother Abbess (Wendy vanden Heuvel), a mystical and mysterious woman. They each pick out a totem card, which has a name of a spiritual woman from history, like Teresa of Ávila and Clare of Assisi, who will now represent each woman’s leader for the rest of their time at the convent.
The premise of The Convent is original and intriguing, but it quickly gets mired in clichés. Jill (Margaret Odette) is the classic good girl who finds that her life hasn’t turned out the way that it should have. Patti (Samantha Soule) is the bad girl and disruptor of the peaceful time at the convent. She is clearly holding something over Mother Abbess’ head and that secret becomes clear within a few scenes. All of the characters, with the exception of the nun, Wilma (Lisa Ramirez), who is trying to figure out why her God has gone silent, are broad archetypes. The audience never gets to know them well enough to root for them and when they do finally have their “epiphanies,” the epiphanies don’t feel earned.
Because the audience is only a few rows away from the actors, every performance feels exaggerated. There’s a lot of yelling, shouting and crying, which should be refreshing, because women aren’t usually allowed to show the full spectrum of their emotions with any kind of force. Yet, none of these reactions feel earned or justified and are not calibrated for the intimacy of the space. The characters turn into caricatures and distract from Dickey’s message. The lack of specificity in the acting cannot fall solely on the actors; Daniel Talbott isn’t entirely sure what to make of this modern-yet-medieval play, either.
According to the play, convents were a place where women could go in the medieval period to get an education and find a way out of marriage. The Mother Abbess argues that her convent is a safe haven. The women do chores, pray, and study up on their totems as if they are doing book reports for school. They have sex, sing Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” get drunk, sneak out of the convent, and occasionally take hallucinogenic drugs to confront people from their past who have stood in their way. Praying involves the women standing up and saying what they want. Their wants are as simple as high heels and as complex as forgiveness. Although the play pulls from some old-fashioned Catholic practices, the Mother Abbess doesn’t seem to believe in anything, which is where it begins to feel hollow.
Jessica Dickey’s script is full of monologues and these monologues play out on a simple set by Raul Abrego. This medieval courtyard is attractive and transports the audience to France, but the play begs for a set change after the opening scene. The simplistic setting does not sustain a run time of 90 minutes. The Convent seems like it accidentally got caught on a Shakespearean stage: it’s too open and too bland. When projections (by Katherine Freer) of stained glass, faded statues, and wheat fields sweep across the stage, it does help add some mysticism into the play and is an effective way to transition. Costume designer Tristan Raines puts the women in simple dyed blue gowns after they enter the convent. They each have their own modern clothes before they enter, which is the best glimpse we get at their personalities.
The show deals directly with the “Can women have it all?” debate. Dickey flips it slightly by adding “Can women have it all…without hurting others?” It’s an interesting question to ask. These women look toward fanatical saints and martyrs for leadership and guidance, because after all, they got to do at least a little of what they wanted in a dangerous man’s world. The women of The Convent come into Mother Abbess’ retreat “spiritually bankrupt,” and they leave that way. In the medieval Catholic church, these women were given the equivalent of a shard from the cross and were tricked into being healed. Nowadays, they would just go to see a therapist or start meditating instead.