You like monks? You like nuns? Well have I got a show for you! A proper robes and sandals saga called Virtue, by accomplished playwright and University of Utah professor Tim Slover, now playing at Rose Wagner Center.
The Plan B Theater Company production is an examination of the life of Hildegard of Bingen, who, among many (many) other things, was the head of an abby in Germany in the 12th Century. Hildegard (Sorry SAINT Hildegard—she was canonized in 2012) following a “midlife awakening” in her early 40s, began composing music prolifically and created what is considered to be the world’s first opera.
I know. I thought it sounded boring too.
But it opens with a bang. Hildegard (Christy Summerhays) is bathed in light and in full sock-it-to-me-Lord revelation mode revealing a real scorcher that includes a steamy bit about intimacy (yes that kind) with the Lord God Almighty hisself. Her dutiful (and lovestruck) monastic companion Brother Volmar (S.A. Rodgers), scribes the vision—the last of a series that should complete the book Scivias, which was commissioned by none other than the Pope.
Presented with the final vision, the boss, Abbot Cuno (Jay Perry), isn’t having it. He has pinned his fortunes to the prophecies and visions of Hildegard and he worries about how this mackin’ on Jesus business will play with the Pontiff. The game is afoot, Cuno schemes to coax Hildegard toward finding a more suitable vision, perhaps something more crusade-promoting?
Enter the ingenue, Richardis (Emilie Starr), a young noblewoman who is sent the Abbey by her brother the Archbishop, with some unknown sin she needs to pay for. But, because her brother the influential archbishop, is doing the actual paying, our ever coin-counting Abbot Cuno welcomes her with open arms. She turns out to have a commanding gift for musical transcription and as Hildegard’s visions become more and more musical, the young novitiate becomes essential to the revelation biz, pushing aside Brother Volmar. Our Iago Abbot uses the rift to advance his plots to suck up to the archbishop and the pope and from there things get really, really good.
OK, OK. I’m being cheeky here but honestly this play had me on the edge of my seat. The history is fascinating, offering a look into monastic life of the 12th Century but it is the jousting among the characters that propels it along. Along the way there are thought-provoking discussions about the nature of the secular and spiritual worlds, frank talk about sexuality and gender and, well, it’s all just plain interesting and kept that way with a stellar cast.
Perry is outstanding as the unctuous Cuno, who despite being the villain here is quite likable, and often darkly funny. He’s just a guy trying to keep the Abbey in the black, after all. Summerhays plays her Hildegard with vast reserves of strength and vulnerability and the two spar like O’Toole and Hepburn. Roger’s Brother Volmar, caught in middle, plays his long-suffering scholastic so sympathetically that I heard sobs among the preview crowd as he confessed his love to Hildegard. Plan B, newcomer Emilie Starr literally takes the role of the soul that is at stake in Hildegard’s visions and she manages to be both starry-eyed and strong when called upon for some of the play’s heaviest lifting.
Bottom line, Virtue is the best play I’ve seen so far this year. Despite its ancient setting, this is a thoroughly modern tale that reminds us that people, no matter how holy or even sainted, are just people with hearts and minds that need to feel and to give love. Plus, also schemes.
Go see plays.
Virtue runs through Feb. 26 in the Black Box Studio Theater at the Rose Wagoner Center. Tickets and more information here.
SPECIAL PERFORMANCE: In conjunction with the production, a special musical event celebrating the life and music of St. Hildegard of Bingen will be held at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark (231 E. 100 South, SLC) at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 19. The event is free and open to the public.