by Edward Rubin
People on trial, especially women that end up being executed, make good theatre and film as well as subjects of art. The two reigning queens whose lives still continue to resonate long after their deaths are Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), the last Queen of France, who literally lost her head, and Jeanne d’Arc (1412-1431) who went up in flames nearly seven centuries ago. Done in by politics, both were captured, jailed, put on trial, dragged through the streets and summarily executed, as a kind of entertainment before a boisterous crowd of unruly citizens. And ever since their demise each continues to be resuscitated, again and again, in both fictive and non-fictive modes, for the viewing, listening, and reading pleasure of those of us still alive.
The latest Joan of Arc re-creation, currently playing at the Public Theatre in New York City through December 23, is Jane Anderson’s play Mother of Maid, starring Glenn Close as Joan of Arc’s mother. I might add, before going any further that there are three major reasons which make this play well-worth seeing: Glenn Close! Glenn Close! And Glenn Close! Her rock-solid presence, strongly insistent, as is her style, dwarfs every cast member around her. Obviously she is the play’s calling card.
This is Mother of the Maid’s second go around, as the play had its world premiere at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts in 2015. Since then Anderson has restructured the play by eliminating one character and combining two others, thus allegedly simplifying the play for future audiences. In the old version Joan’s mother shares the narration with Saint Catherine, the very saint who told Joan to drive out the English out of France and bring the Dauphin to Reims for his coronation. In the newly renovated play, it is Joan’s mother alone – an interesting conceit – who gets to tell her daughter’s story from a mother’s point of view.
The well-worn, well-known story of Joan of Arc, architecturally speaking, is usually presented, whether on stage, film, or in book, as a straight-on retelling in which we get to follow Joan’s battlefront triumphs, her capture and jailing, her trial, and her very end when she is burned at the stake. And all through these tellings it is Joan herself who appears front, center, and in our face.
Not so in Anderson’s version. Here, her Joan of Arc (Grace Van Patten), though half of the play’s title and the main topic of everybody’s attention, from her mother Isabelle (Glenn Close), her father Jacques (Dermot Crowley), her brother Pierre (Andrew Hovelson) who follows Joan into battle, and all of the other minor characters in the play, comes across, in all but her one prison scene, as background fodder, a major minor second fiddle if you will.
While Mother of the Maid does skim the highlights of Joan’s short life, rather perfunctorily – she goes up in smoke at age 19 – the story as it unfolds here is shockingly shallow in depth. In fact, the overly simple seven-scene play, which presents all of the characters in an annoying folksy contemporary vein – can you believe that the 15th Century Joan keeps calling her mother Ma – is at best a Cliff Notes version of the Joan of Arc story. It can also be viewed in its simplicity, as a historical children’s fable.
In this play Anderson’s Joan is presented as a somewhat petulant and oft morose teenager given to visions, and obsessed with leading an army to rid France of the English. Her peasant mother and father are depicted as hard working country bumpkins resembling, and as some critics have noted, Hollywood’s Ma and Pa Kettle whose films of the 40s and 50s rescued Universal Studios from bankruptcy.
If you like confrontational meat, the ugly and painful trials of either Antoinette and Joan, both highly documented in their own times, is the place to be. Just watching the calisthenics of prosecutors, defendants, and various witnesses offering testimony, both pro and con, truth-tellers and liars, even though you know the ending, is enough to keep your heart thumping, and both eyes riveted on the action.
Unfortunately, here we only hear about the trial, and superficially at that. In fact, most of the action, including Joan’s private meetings with the Dauphine who was her mentor – and who among us would not want to be a fly on the wall – take place off stage.
For the record, no person of the middle ages, male or female, has been the subject of more study than Joan of Arc. There is a wealth of historical material available. The main sources of information are the chronicles. Five original manuscripts of her condemnation trial surfaced in old archives during the 19th century. Historians also located the complete records of her rehabilitation trial, which contained sworn testimony from 115 witnesses, and the original French notes for the Latin condemnation trial transcript. A wealth of similarly kept historical documents exists for Antoinette also.
Although all of the secondary actors in Mother of the Maid, from Joan’s father Jacques (Dermot Crowley), her brother Pierre (Andrew Hovelson), and Daniel Pearce who plays three roles, that of Father Gilbert, Chamberlain, and a scribe, turn in performances, as accomplished as the script allows, it is Kate Jennings Grant’s Lady of the Court, the most naturally spontaneous written character in the play that I found most interesting.
Though Grant’s role as a noblewoman is on the smaller side, and she appears in only two scenes, her character, the least rigid in the play, is the only character that I wanted to see more of. Her skill in showing compassion, mother love, friendship, and true self-reflection, was mesmerizing in its honesty. Equally alluring, in view of the extreme seriousness of Joan’s plight and her parent’s incessant worrying about the safety of their daughter, is Grant’s light touch which adds a few dollops of levity of which the play offers little.
Aiding and abetting each of Grant’s scenes was the magic hands of scenic designer John Lee Beatty, and costume designer Jane Greenwood, who took us from the drab brown and grey settings of Joan’s home in Domrémy, in northeastern France, to the bright and colorful, ornately designed chamber in the Dauphin’s castle.
Least satisfying was the performance of Grace Van Patten. Try as she did, pitted against the play’s more seasoned actors, and tethered to a weak script to boot, Patten’s Joan, in all but her prison scene when her mother comes to wash her sick, gaunt, and highly bruised daughter just before she is to be led to her death, strains believability. It is in this harrowing scene, as we watch Joan being roughly separated from her mother and dragged from her cell by a prison guard that pulls our heart from out of our chest.
Though the play could have ended right then and there, another scene, the last, has each character informing us in monologue style, as to what happened to them after Joan’s death.
After the others have their say, and just before the stage goes black and the play comes to a close, a still-grieving Isabelle, looking over our heads, out at the horizon in front of her, asks us if we hear those birds. “How do they keep up it up all day? It must be for pure enjoyment. And look at all these wildflowers — how do such delicate things manage to push their way up out of the dirt. And all those silly bees digging into those blossoms, sucking up the nectar, not giving up — oh the greedy, greedy things. And smell that air. So full of the sweetness of grass and bud and life. And the sky. Such a clear, clean blue. This is what made my daughter’s heart so large. She didn’t need to conjure up some saint. This, all this…this is pure goodness.”
Waiting a few beats she ends the play with the saddest, tear triggering words of the evening, “I had a daughter once.”
Previews: September 25, 2018
Opened: October 17, 2018
Ends: December 23, 2018
Company/Producer: The Public Theater
Theater: Public Theater – Anspacher Theater
Theater Address: 425 Lafayette Street, New York City
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 min
Playwright: Jane Anderson
Director: Matthew Penn
Original Music: Alexander Sovronsky
Technical: Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty, Costume Design: Jane Greenwood, Lighting Design: Jane Greenwood, Lighting Design: Lap Chi Chu, Sound Design: Alexander Sovronsky & Joanna Lynn Lynne Staub, Hair & Wig Design: Tom Watson
Cast: Glenn Close (Isabelle Arc), Dermot Crowley (Jacques Arc), Olivia Gilliatt (Monique), Kate Jennings Grant (Lady of the Court), Andrew Hovelson (Pierre Arc/Guard), Daniel Pearce (Father Gilbert/Chamberlain/Scribe), Grace Van Patten (Joan Arc)