A World Apart (2/4/2011)
As Susan Mosakowski’s A World Apart opens, Mother Augustina, an abbess in a Cistercian monastery, is deeply engrossed in reading a religious text. Once interrupted, she explains that she is searching for answers to a host of troubling questions. Doubts about all kinds of things have begun to creep in, she says. Take the issue of heaven and hell. Common assumptions posit one above and the other below us. But why?
“Heaven and hell do not have that kind of geography,” the abbess (beautifully performed by Antoinette LaVecchia) tells a stunned Sister Cornelia (played with graceful torment by Amelia Workman). “Maybe heaven is right next to us, shoulder to shoulder, or in front of us, or behind, and that anyone who wanted to go to heaven could be there in a minute, if only they had the desire. It’s all about desire.”
Ah yes, desire. When Father Daniel Byrne (an intense Andy Paris) arrives at the convent to lecture the sisters, he and Sister Augustina trade smoldering glances. Not only that, his presentation further ignites the uncertainty that Sister Augustina has been grappling with. She finds one query particularly provocative: “Are we doing more for others by being inside our monastic world, or should we be outside and active, a part of everyday life, a part of every life that needs us?”
In short order Father Byrne confides that he has decided to leave the priesthood and—surprise—after a few brief encounters he asks Sister Augustina to remove her wimple and join him. He presents the option matter-of-factly, as if it’s a no-brainer for her to renounce her vows and leave the cloistered, celibate life she’s led for decades. Much to the priest’s annoyance, the request provokes crises of faith and commitment in Augustina, crises that spill into the lives of the nuns in her care. So what to do?
While A World Apart might have delved into the roots of the Sister Augustina’s angst more deeply—for example, it’s hard to imagine that her lust had been completely dormant before Father Byrne’s arrival or that it took decades for her to become curious about world events—the play raises issues that continue to nag at the Catholic Church. To its credit, A World Apart does not offer an oversimplified resolution of these concerns. Is there a place for monastic life in the twenty-first century? Does requiring celibacy make sense today? You decide.
Lee Savage’s spare set and Mark Barton and Ryan Seelig’s lighting design create a haunting environment for this eighty-minute play. It’s a serious work with ample humor, delving into what it means to be mindful and make conscious choices. Well acted and resonant, A World Apart addresses the human need for authenticity, love, and meaning. In the end, regardless of whether Sister Augustina’s religious order chooses to remain cloistered or opts to frolic in the muck of earthly delights, Father Byrne’s admonition rings true: “Sometimes you have to go outside to get more on the inside.” At the same time, what he doesn’t say is also true: Sometimes quiet contemplation and solitude can be enough.
Photo credit: Jim Baldassare