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A World Apart

By Ethan Kanfer
Photo by: Jim Baldassare
From the opening beats of A World Apart, it is easy to understand why its vibrant main character would be attracted to a life of cloistered modesty. Lee Savage’s orderly, black-draped set and Mark Barton’s soft lighting create the comforting, quiet world of a Benedictine abbey in which abbess Mother Augustina, played by Antoinette Lavecchia, presides over a flock of young nuns. In these safe confines, distractions are few, and Augustina can count on the obeisance of her number one acolyte, Sister Cornelia, played by Amelia Workman. But tensions bubble underneath the chaste apparel and formal verbiage. Though never impertinent, Cornelia is full of questions. Augustina serves up the tried and true answers, but they’re beginning to ring hollow. Her budding crisis of faith is exacerbated by the arrival of Father Byrne, played by Andy Paris.


The charismatic priest shares inspiring tales of exotic travels, exhorting the flock to look beyond dogma and think for themselves. It’s unusual rhetoric for a man in his position, and indeed it soon surfaces that Byrne has plans to leave the priesthood. What’s more, he wants Augustina to come with him. Of course, she demurs, but Byrne is not easily dissuaded. He even goes so far as to buy her a slinky blue dress (of the exact right size, as it turns out. Clearly, despite the Father’s vow of celibacy, he is not inexperienced with women.). Augustina prays hard, trying to sublimate the tingle within. But she has already changed profoundly. Soon she finds her own sermons are full of radical new ideas. Sex, for example, is something the sisters can hardly be expected to talk about with the parishioners without first hand knowledge of the subject. The speech causes quite a stir, and the authorities send Augustina on a mandatory furlough.


Now Augustina is free to practice what she’s been preaching. Her experience becomes something akin to the ritual of “Rumspringa,” in which Amish teenagers are encouraged to experience the modernized world before deciding if the Mennonite life is for them. She puts on the blue dress, experiences what it’s like to feel desirable, makes love with Byrne, and even smokes a little pot. Byrne loves her and for a time they are happy. But Augustina knows she can’t have it both ways. If she returns to the abbey, she will not see her lover again. If she makes a new home in the secular world, she will be turning her back on everything she’s known for her entire adult life. 


The play’s middle section is the least developed. Intriguing possibilities are hinted at when Augustina says things like “I’ve never been to a bar.” Beyond sexual intimacy, there must be myriad experiences she hasn’t sampled in the secular world. It would be interesting to see more of how modern life looks through her eyes. It would also raise the stakes concerning her final decision to stay or go. Still, there’s a great deal of tenderness and lyricism in Susan Mosakowski’s script. It’s an apt vehicle for Lavecchia, whose delicate, expressive face would look right at home in a Botticelli fresco. Her nuanced performance adroitly integrates the contradictory aspects of Augustina’s psyche, from mischievous sensuality to weary piety. Under Jean Randich’s sensitive direction, the supporting cast renders both the ascetic and laical words in multiple, and deeply human, dimensions.

Written by Susan Mosakowski, Directed by Jean Randich, At the Flea Theater, 41 White Street, New York, NY 10013, 212-226-0051