Glenn Close and Grace Van Patten photos by Joan Marcus
The story of
Joan of Arc has been told many times, many ways, but playwright Jane Anderson
and Glenn Close bring a new and vital dimension as well as sublime emotional
depth to the tale in the drama Mother of the Maid.
saint through the eyes of her mother, Isabelle Arc, the hagiography takes on an
achingly beautiful humanity, and Close explores every nuance, every color of
the role masterfully and without pretension. It certainly must rank as one of
this formidable actress’s most formidable performances. When she speaks to us
at the start, telling us about Isabelle in the third person but in character,
the audience is immediately pulled into the story and into the humble Arc home,
where the floor is packed dirt and the furnishings to put it kindly are basic.
is a god-fearing woman,” she tells us. “She can neither read nor write and her
skirts smell ripe as cheese. But she can do all sorts of handy things such as
gutting a lamb, lancing a boil and hiding the family valuables during a raid.
And she’s never blamed God for a blessed thing.”
strength implied in that speech climbs to towering heights, as Isabelle’s and
Joan’s story is unfurled in a series of skillfully written scenes. Anderson trims the details, but underscores tellingly the relevancies in the conjunctions
of politics, religion, and celebrity prevalent in Joan’s rise to a national
hero and her downfall, reviled as a witch and executed by fire as a heretic.
And finally at the close, when Isabelle tells us how years after her daughter’s
death, she went to Rome, “faced a tribunal of clergy, three rows of them in
robes black as crows,” and cleared her daughter’s name, you may want to stand
up and cheer, once you’ve wiped away the tears.
that is somehow both contemporary and timeless, we see how Isabelle is at first
understanding but disbelieving as Joan reveals her visions (in Anderson’s
telling, it’s only St. Catherine who appears to Joan). When Joan also reveals
that she has already taken her case to army officials – that she is destined to
lead France to victory against the occupying English – and her story accepted,
Isabelle too is accepting but fearful and defends the move against the
disbelief of her husband Jacques.
When Joan is
taken to the castle of the Dauphin – the uncrowned kind of France
– we’re told how Isabelle treks 300 miles to see her. And when she encounters
her daughter, now glowingly dressed in a silken robe for consultation with St.
Catherine, standing at the top of a flight of golden stairs, Isabelle is
overcome with awe for her own daughter.
Kate Jennings Grant, Olivia Gilliatt, and Glenn Close
One of the
play’s most pungent scenes comes when Isabelle converses with a lady of the
court, Nicole, about their respective daughters. Nicole is supercilious but
well-meaning and impressed with Joan’s celebrity. Her three daughters, she
tells Isabelle, are “not like your Joan, they’re all a bit spoiled, I’m
afraid…But we’re titled and the world is theirs in a sense. It’s hard to tell them
you what, Nicole,” Isabelle finally responds, “you take Joan and send your
three daughters to me. I’ll put them to work picking dung balls out of sheep’s
as a soldier climaxes with the coronation of the Dauphin, with Isabelle and the
family present. “You should see the room they put us in – oh, it’s grand,” coos
Isabelle to her son Pierre, who has accompanied his sister into battle. But it
isn’t much later, as certainly all you Joan of Arc fans know, that Joan is
captured by the English, brought before a church tribunal, found to be a
heretic and burned at the stake.
that Close takes the play bravely to its tragic peak. In a dank, dark cell,
Isabelle cleans her daughter lovingly and as unemotionally as possible,
removing the foulness of her imprisonment. But once the guard takes Joan away
to her death, Isabelle is overcome with a howling of grief that may well tell
your heart out of its chest. It’s a wail of anguished motherly love, helpless
and bottomless in its despair.
Theater has surrounded Close’s tour de force with a splendid production, with
actors deeply matching Close’s commitment to the material and Matthew Penn’s
spot-on direction, keeping the history clear within Anderson’s excitingly
propulsive storytelling. Grace Van Patten imbues Joan with an endearing
teen-age innocence – almost a sweetness -- that can give way instantly to a
fierce willfulness when her word, or more accurately, her visions are doubted.
As her father Jacques, Dermot Crowley affectingly plumbs the depths of feeling
churning within this disgruntled but loving man.
Dermot Crowley and Glenn Close
Hovelson brings a disarming but still appropriately callow charm to Pierre, Joan’s older brother, and Daniel Pearce effectively captures the expedient piety
of the family priest. (Pearce also takes on other roles, such as the court
scribe, and if there’s any hitch in this production, it’s that he remains too
recognizable, causing a bit of momentary confusion as to who he’s playing.)
The role of
Nicole, the lady of the Court, has only just been taken over by Kelly Curran,
replacing Kate Jennings Grant, and Curran limns both the solicitousness and the
heart of the lady perfectly.
Beatty’s easily shifting sets and Jane Greenwood’s costumes deliver both the
roughness of Joan’s home and the sumptuousness of the court, while the lighting
by Lap Chi Chu; the sound design by Alexander Sovronsky and Joanna Lynne Staub,
and Sovronsky’s original music add immeasurably to the drama.
the Maid is a searing
exploration of parenthood in the face of the exceptional child caught up in exceptional
and finally dire circumstances. And it’s wrapped in meaningful and gripping
storytelling. It’s another notch in the already well-notched belts of both
Glenn Close and the Public Theater.
the Public Theater
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