Before attending “Mother of the Maid,” a new play by Jane Anderson at Lenox’s Shakespeare & Company, which opened on Saturday, August 8, and runs through September 6, one question was inevitable. Do we really need another play about Joan of Arc? After all, we have takes on the Maid of Orleans from the likes of William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Maxwell Anderson, Fredrich Shiller, Bertolt Brecht and Jean Anouilh, to name a few, not to mention her appearances in novels, films and opera.
Could Jane Anderson possibly find something new to say about the future saint whose military acumen over the British would raise the siege of Orleans and allow her chief protector the Dauphin, to be crowned Charles VII, King of France? Anderson is an accomplished playwright (“The Baby Dance” and “Defying Gravity” as well as an Emmy winning writer for television for such programs as last season’s heralded “Olive Kittredege.”
In truth, Anderson does not offer any new insights into Joan, whose trajectory here follows pretty much a condensed, truncated version of the historical record. What Anderson contributes to the canon of Joan plays is the perspective she has chosen to take. “Mother of the Maid” is indeed about Joan’s parents and how their relatively simple lives were forever changed and altered by their daughter’s claim of hearing voices of various saints that led her to offer her services as a military leader to the French and, following a succession of important victories, ended up captured by the British and, after a trial, being burned at the stake.
In many ways, Anderson has written a play less about a specific historical character than a serious musing on the ways that celebrity and infamy impact a family, particularly a poor, uneducated, rural family who rarely traveled very far from their tiny communities. While we’re familiar with Joan’s story, we probably have never stopped to consider what the impact of her actions were on her family back in Domremy. Did they support what she was doing? Were they worried that she might be killed on the battlefields? How did they treat or talk to her once she became a larger than life heroine of France?
In Anderson’s view, they responded just like typical parents today would. They tried to forbid her from leaving. They worried themselves sick each time she was engaged in combat. They blamed her brother Pierre, who they had sent to watch over her, for allowing an arrow to pierce the space between her chest armor and her shoulder armor. They wondered why their daughter could not spend more time with them when they visited. It is quite ironic to see such domestic concerns dramatized alongside Joan attending to her voices or mustering her army into action or preparing to accept honors from the King.
But our cheeky host for the evening, St. Catherine herself, one of Joan’s primary voices, resplendent in pure white gown with a tiara-like halo, repeatedly cautions the parents in the audience about the limitations of their control over their children, encouraging parents to be patient and that there is a good chance that the child will return to the bosom. She also mentions that the actors will dispense with French accents, since they would be hard to understand. As a result, the actors rely on cockney or upper class English accents in order to distinguish between the societal castes from which the characters originated.
Under Matthew Penn’s generally seamless and expert direction, Anderson’s play also offers something else quite stunning for an audience: a great meaty role for Shakespeare & Company co-founder Tina Packer as Isabelle Arc, Joan’s long-suffering, put-upon, ultimately heroic mother. As Isabelle, Packer very ably and dynamically is able to chart her character’s growth from an illiterate farmer’s wife and weaver to an increasingly savvy mother who will literally do anything for her daughter including travel all over France and eventually to Rome where she will plead her daughters’ case following her execution by the British. She sublimely nails one extraordinary monologue in which she pours out all of her built up anguish to a prison guard and later to her parish priest.
Packer is nearly matched by Anne Troup, playing the Maid herself, depicting her growth from a tomboyish helper on the farm to a single minded unstoppable force, looking quite at home in full armor. Troup allows us to see Joan having to speak up for herself amidst the predominatly male army and convince the Dauphin, The Archbishop and other that not only is she fully capable to lead the military as a savvy strategist, but that she is doing so upon God’s authority and that God will protect the French.
Bridget Saracino, who was so fine earlier this season in “The How and the What”, has a fine time as the deceptively earnest but ultimately barren St. Catherine, who helps fill us in on the Maid’s back story and promotes all of the positive aspects of the Maid’s actions. As Joan’s fortunes go south, St. Catherine becomes more cynical and less present in Joan’s life, blaming the Maid herself, for losing so much faith that she has closed herself to receiving God’s grace and Catherine’s visits.
Nigel Gore brings some depth to Joan’s taciturn, stoic father, Jacques Arc, who doesn’t necessarily believe that the voices are real, although he can recognize the dramatic change in his daughter, and thus forbids her from following the Dauphin’s entourage. He genuinely wants to keep his children safe and will act accordingly. Gore is especially amusing as he encounters an elaborate feast laid out for the Maid’s family, finding no reason for this ostentation or any of the other examples of outlandish spending by the Dauphin, now King.
Elizabeth Aspenlieder has manages quite well as an affected royal, the wife to one of the King’s nobles, who demonstrates incredible incredulity when meeting Joan’s unkempt, naïve family, particularly Isabelle, who at one point has walked in the mud for long miles to reach Joan’s post. She captures the Lady’s disgust at helping to remove Isabelle’s filthy, putrid socks and washing her tired feet. Her shock at what the poor in the kingdom must tolerate mirrors quite nicely the wealth gap occurring today in our own society, in which multi-millionaire or billionaire political figures have no clue as to the struggles of the lower classes, and can’t comprehend why they’ve not been able to raise themselves literally from the muck and mire. Nathaniel Kent captures the doofiness of Joan’s brother who lacks the training and discipline of his sister and her troops and who is essentially a camp hanger-on, building up his importance to Joan’s efforts, but a total failure at protecting his sister, who generally does what she wants anyway and doesn’t need this reminder of her parents’ protectiveness around. Jason Asprey is suitably unctuous as the King’s scribe and in this other role, depicts a 15th century version of what it means to “walk back” one’s comments, as he eventually denies ever saying that he ever said that he believed it was God talking to Joan.
Set designer Patrick Brennan has tried to give an epic feel to the tiny Elayne P. Bernstein Stage, with an icon-like structure center stage that can open to hint at a church or a cathedral or a court, and when closed represent the tight quarters of the Arc residence. We don’t quite get an accurate feel for the deadly circumstances in which the Arc’s live as the play opens and or a sense of the hard, boring, repetitive labor in which the family must engage for mere subsistence. Perhaps real dirt on the floor or some more wear and tear on Govane Lohbauer’s costumes for the family. Lohbauer does provide a striking coat of armor for the Maid, as well as a rich-looking, luxurious outfit for the Lady of the Court in dire contrast to the outfits of the Arcs. James Bilnoski is responsible for the lighting which adds brightness to the court and cathedral scene and contributes to the frightening, claustrophobic environs of Joan’s prison cell later in the play.
Anderson allows her play to come full circle in Joan’s life, as she creates a harrowing scene between the Maid and her mother shortly before her execution. It powerfully, thanks again to Packer, demonstrates the extent and depth of a mother’s love, as she pulls out all the stops to provide any support and encouragement to her daughter so that Joan can face her death with the strength she found in leading the armies.
Packer is also excellent as she faces the truth that her precious Catholic Church and Joan’s supposed backer, the King, have turned their backs on the Maid and refused to pay a ransom to the British, despite the military victories Joan had accomplished, so much so that the authorities now downplay the significance of her role, saying for example, that the siege of Orleans was about to have been broken anyway. Her rage and anger are palpable and we don’t need to rush to Google to see what Isabelle does after the play ends. With Packer’s determined performance, we know that Isabelle will go to the ends of the earth, testify endlessly at Joan’s post-death trials for heresy, and make a strenuous, motivated and passionate case for her daughter’s memory. And we know her today as St. Joan, we also know that this mother did succeed.
For information and tickets, call the Shakespeare & Company box office at 413.637.3353 or visit the theater’s website at www.shakespeare.org.