Plays about women’s can-I-have-it-all conflicts too often resemble a Crate & Barrel catalog in both décor and decorum. So it’s a relief to find that there isn’t a sofa in sight in “The Convent,” nor even a pouf or a pew. Instead, Jessica Dickey’s new drama, which opened on Thursday evening in a handsome, sometimes hysterical production directed by Daniel Talbott at A.R.T./New York, swims vigorously (if then laboriously) against the tide of contemporary domesticity.
At first, “The Convent” doesn’t even seem to take place in the present, let alone in a living room. As we file into seats on either side of the long, narrow playing space designed by Raul Abrego, we see two women in homespun robes sitting in what looks like a medieval cloister, complete with flagstones, plantings and, in evocative projections by Katherine Freer, forever views of lavender and wheat.
The illusion of eternity is shattered by the very first (unquotable) words spoken, as a third woman arrives breathless after climbing to the site. We quickly discern that this woman, Jill (Margaret Odette), and the other two, Dimlin (Annabel Capper) and Bertie (Amy Berryman), are contemporary pilgrims who have come to the restored convent, in the south of France, for a weeklong feminist spiritual retreat. Soon, three more — Tina (Brittany Anikka Liu), Wilma (Lisa Ramirez) and Patti (Samantha Soule) — show up panting, more or less eager to surrender their unhappiness along with their cellphones.
But it will not be so easy, as Mother Abbess (Wendy vanden Heuvel) soon tells them. “Women cannot follow men,” she explains; they must in some way follow themselves. “We could say you are here because a kind of fog has rolled in between you and your leader, and so your life has become frightening, even hostile, disoriented.”
Ms. vanden Heuvel, with her commanding voice and spectral glare, makes this somewhat woo-woo setup seem at once both ancient and new — and daringly theatrical. No accident that those are trademarks of Ms. Dickey’s plays, which are set in a present constantly infused with the past. “Row After Row” features Civil War re-enactors; “Charles Ives Take Me Home” offers the dead composer as a referee between a feuding contemporary father and daughter. “The Amish Project” examines the effect of a modern calamity on a traditional, sequestered community.
“The Convent” is in some ways the inverse of that, examining the effect of a sequestered community on a modern calamity. Because the calamity here is women’s loss of faith in themselves, Mother Abbess aims to address it through a revamped and female-oriented cosmology. Thus she deals out a Pokémon-like deck of so-called nomen cards that assign to each pilgrim a medieval avatar. At least for the week, mystics including Teresa of Ávila, Clare of Assisi and Hildegard von Bingen are assigned to take the place of the women’s absent “leaders,” teaching each what she needs to know to repair her life.
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It is here that a pall of predictability begins to descend on the plot, as the cast is put through paces that seem prompted by dramaturgical rather than spiritual need. First there are little book reports on the avatars. Then, before meals, the women recite, instead of grace, a statement of their life wishes, both profound and less so. (“I want to be good at high heels,” Jill says.) Under the influence of sleep deprivation and a mild hallucinogen, they eventually participate in a ritual called Head of Kings, in which each “sees” an image of someone who has contributed to a sense of alienation from herself.
As the play’s structure comes to resemble a reality competition with arbitrary tasks, the six pilgrims likewise come to resemble the clichéd characters in a lifeboat story: the innocent, the free spirit, the spoiler, the good girl. (At least they are female clichés.) Their issues start to converge as well, mostly around maternal conflict; it is not much of a surprise to learn that Mother Abbess, who we already know is not really an abbess, is also not much of a mother.
Amid much agony and also ecstasy — the mountain air is at least good for the libido — the thread of the play’s argument frays. Provocative ideas get raised almost as a bullet-point outline for a deeper work: Are women actually afraid of the independence they have fought for? Must choosing to be true to yourself mean letting “someone else break”?
These questions remain crucial ones to ask, but Ms. Dickey’s round-robin structure (and Hail Mary pass of an ending) diminish their impact. In a way, so does Mr. Talbott’s deluxe staging, by enhancing the play’s conceit at the expense of its characters. (“The Convent” was produced, its program carefully tells us, by three entities: Weathervane Productions and Rising Phoenix Repertory in association with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.) The cast does what it can to hold onto the careening story but pretty soon it is only the imagery that seems strong enough to survive.
For me, the best moments of “The Convent” are thus the quietest ones, often involving Wilma, a nun who has lost track of her calling. She gets at the problem of a specifically female spirituality by posing a question so simple and universal and contemporary it might as well be asked in a living room as a convent: “If God is a mother, what do you do if your mother dies?”