Genghis Khan had a mother; so did Amelia Earhart and Dwight Eisenhower. Perhaps Mother of the Maid, starring Glenn Close as the woman whom Joan of Arc called Ma, will start a trend of offering the maternal perspective on historical figures. It should: Jane Anderson’s play, in a wonderfully acted production at the Public Theater, is amusing, moving, incongruous, just plain odd and riveting. What may be most fascinating about it is that, as improbable as many of the scenes may appear, the play is rooted in the historical record.
“Isabelle Arc is a god-fearing woman,” Glenn Close begins as Isabelle, speaking of herself in the third person, while cleaning a pile of newly shorn sheep’s wool, in an opening monologue that establishes the grim times and Isabelle’s stoic nature.
Joan (Grace Van Patten) soon joins her mother in the chore, and Isabelle tells her to stop hunching her shoulders, and to work in the light so she won’t strain her eyes – mother stuff.
“All right, Ma.”
Isabelle senses something is wrong. Does Joan feel stirrings for a local boy? No! After much maternal badgering, Joan confesses what’s what: “I’m having holy visions Ma!”
“What kind of visions?”
“Saint Catherine been appearing to me.”
“Oh. She’s a lovely saint. That’s lovely, Joanie.” Maybe she can become a nun! “If you get in a good convent, they’ll teach you how to read and write. And if you play your cards right, you could become an abbess. Abbesses get to tell people what to do; you’d like that.”
But no, Joanie wants to lead the French army against the English occupiers.
More production photographs at NewYorkTheater.me
The familiar story of the teenager’s heroics and martyrdom plays out in the context of family dynamics, with the significant presence not just of her mother, but also her irascible, no-nonsense father Jacques Arc (a phenomenal Dermot Crowley) and one of her brothers, Pierre Arc (a persuasive and oft-comical Andrew Hovelson.) All of them are at first skeptical, and so reluctant to see their Joanie become a soldier that they beat her, and physically restrain her, but that doesn’t stop her. The local priest Father Gilbert (Daniel Pearce), who’s been swayed by Joan’s sudden standing in “the upper ecclesiastical community,” tries to convince them that “it’s God’s will,” but after his visit, husband and wife still argue.
Isabelle: “Makes sense that God would pick her. And look at all the fancy people who thinks she’s really something….”
Jacques: “Still don’t believe it.”
Isabelle: “…It’d be a sin to keep her down just because we acted like a couple of stupid peasants.”
Jacques: “Stupid peasants believe everything that’s told them.”
The family eventually gives in; they have no choice, though Isabelle still is not crazy about her daughter bounding her breasts and wearing a man’s suit of armor: “Your nipples will flatten. Can’t feed a baby with flat nipples.” Pierre even joins her army. And Jacques and Isabelle eventually benefit from Joan’s elevation, welcomed into the Court of the Dauphin. In one of the most head-scratching aspects of Mother of the Maid, Isabelle bonds with a character known only as Lady of the Court (Kate Jennings Grant) an aristocrat who is solicitous of the peasant Isabelle in ways – washing her dirty feet, apologizing for her privileged position – that just don’t feel likely in 15th Century France.
But even these scenes, like those among the Arc family that amuse us because they seem to mimic behavior of a modern family, get a boost of verisimilitude thanks to Jane Greenwood’s spot-on period costumes and John Lee Beatty’s minimalist rough-hewn wooden set.
The second half of Mother of the Maid, after Joan is captured, makes a radical shift in tone, which it must. That playwright Jane Anderson handles this shift effectively should come as no surprise. She’s best known as the Emmy-winning writer for the TV adaptation of Olive Kitteridge, the heartrending novel by Elizabeth Strout, as well as the author of Defying Gravity, a play about the 1986 Challenger disaster.
What Anderson focuses on is not Joan’s stubborn virtue (as Shaw did in Saint Joan) but Joan’s pain, and her family’s grief. They feel betrayed, abandoned – by King, God and country. There is a scene that could not be more affecting between Jacques and Isabelle in which they furiously blame one another for Joan’s fate, and end up collapsed in each other’s arms.
It is Anderson’s writing and Matthew Penn’s direction that sets this scene up. But it’s the terrific acting of Dermot Crowley and Glenn Close that make it come alive.
Mother of the Maid ends with monologues told in the first person, first by Jacques and then by Isabelle. I won’t tell you what they say, but know this: There was an Isabelle Arc (aka Isabelle d’Arc) and, remarkably, history records her doing exactly what Glenn Close as Isabelle on stage says she did. If the world might not have been dying for yet another dramatization of the story of Joan of Arc, Mother of the Maid at least has something fresh to show us.
Mother of the Maid is on stage at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street, in the East Village, New York, N.Y. 10003) through December 23, 2018. Tickets and details
Mother of the Maid . Written by Jane Anderson, directed by Matthew Penn . Scenic Designer: John Lee Beatty, Costume Designer: Jane Greenwood, Lighting Designer: Lap Chi Chu, Sound Designers: Alexander Sovronsky & Joanna Lynne Staub, Original Music: Alexander Sovronsky. Featuring Glenn Close (Isabelle Arc), Dermot Crowley (Jacques Arc), Olivia Gilliatt (Monique), Kate Jennings Grant (Lady of the Court), Andrew Hovelson (Pierre Arc), Daniel Pearce(Father Gilbert), and Grace Van Patten (Joan Arc) . Produced by the Public Theater. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.