By John Lyle Belden
On a mountain in France, what appears to have been a Medieval monastery has been repurposed as a unique women’s retreat in “The Convent,” a play by Jessica Dickey given a full production by Summit Performance Indianapolis following a successful staged reading last summer, directed by Summit founder Lauren Briggeman.
Mother Abbess (Jolene Mentink Moffatt), founder and leader of the facility, had been a regular American wife and mother who gave up her ordinary life to seek God. Unsatisfied with religion organized in His name, she instead dedicated The Convent to Her spirit. Upon arrival, each seeker gives up modern clothing and conveniences (including the smartphone). She receives simple clothes, is expected to do the chores of centuries past, and must study to identify with her “Nomen,*” a historic female Christian Mystic.
British heiress Cora Dimlin (Carrie Ann Schlatter), assigned Catherine of Siena, has done many such retreats, and acts as The Convent’s number two. She arrived first, as did her friend Bertie (Chynna Fry), a naïve survivor of an isolated cult, assigned St. Clare of Assisi. Jill (Maria Argentina Souza) arrives next; she is at a crossroads in career and marriage, and assigned Teresa of Avila. Wilma (Miki Mathioudakis) is a nun who finds herself unable to pray; she is assigned St. Hildegard. Tina (Shawnte P. Gaston) is trying to change from seeking pleasure to seeking purpose; she gets Juliana of Norwich. Running in late, to past participants’ dismay, is brash bratty Patti (Dekyi Ronge), still holding her Nomen card for Mechtilde von Hackeborn that she received in a previous session.
Feel free to Google the Saints (none are fictional), however, we do get to learn a bit about them during the play.
As these women undergo their journey of self-discovery, they undertake various exercises (including physical). At mealtime prayer they express, “I want…,” starting with trivial things that pop into their heads, adding items until a true deep desire comes forth.
While each has to come to terms with what feelings and needs brought them to this place, the main struggle is between Mother Abbess and Patti, for reasons that soon become clear. Though their connection is easy to guess, Moffatt and Ronge excellently portray their fraught relationship. Fry gives us a charming girl who finds more than her spirit awakening, while Schlatter embodies the English ideal of stiff-upper-lip control, at least for as long as Dimlin holds out. Gaston does a good balance of portraying a woman acting like a “tourist” yet still open to the retreat’s purpose. Mathioudakis plays another strong character; she allows Wilma to shift paradigm without abandoning the person she vowed to be. Souza gives us Jill’s inner chaos that didn’t stop with a change in scenery.
No real sacrilege here, but still for mature audiences, “The Convent” is a fascinating and thought-provoking examination of the continuing struggle and need for women to define themselves in the worlds they live in. There are a number of laughs, a tear or two, and a few unexpected sacred visions.
Feel free to say, “I want” tickets – performances run through April 9 on the Basile Stage of the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Centre, 705 N. Illinois St., downtown Indianapolis. Info and tickets at PhoenixTheatre.org.
(*Ancient word for “name,” or perhaps reference to “gnomon,” the indicating part of a sundial.)