Grace Van Patten and Glenn Close in ‘Mother of the Maid.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
By Samuel L. Leiter
“I had a daughter once,” says Isabelle Arc as the tagline of Jane Anderson’s middling Mother of the Maid, which the script calls “The sorry tale of Joan of Arc as seen through the eyes of her mum.” Naturally, Joan had a mother once, a rather impressive one, in fact, here given a star-powered performance by six-time Oscar nominee Glenn Close. However, until Anderson’s play, she probably was known mainly to d’Arcophiliacs and medieval historians.
Few women have been as frequently dramatized as Joan, including by Shakespeare, but her story is so remarkable writers can’t stop tinkering with it. Much as Tom Stoppard peeked at Hamlet’s backstory in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, so does Anderson attempt, with mixed results, a version of what Joan’s mother, Isabelle, father Jacques (Dermot Crowley), and brother, Pierre (Andrew Hovelson), endured.
Each had a fascinating life, none more than Isabelle—better-known as Isabelle Romée—whose life after Joan was burned at the stake in 1431 was far more fascinating than what Anderson includes. The remarkable accomplishments of this eloquent advocate for Joan’s innocence occupy but a few words in a postmortem speech. Like several similar (but inconsistently deployed) monologues by Isabelle (with a couple by Jacques and Pierre) that irregularly break the fourth wall, it’s delivered in the third person rather than in character.
Anderson isn’t really interested in Isabelle’s achievements, nor does she bother, in Pierre’s closing comments, referencing how he and his brother profited after his sister’s death from exhibiting a faux Joan. The playwright’s facts can be hazy, too, as when she claims (as per family legend) that Jacques died of a broken heart days after Joan’s execution, even though his death 11 years later has been documented. Similarly, she declares only Saint Catherine as Joan’s heavenly voice, neglecting Saints Margaret and Michael.
Anderson’s chief purpose is to depict a peasant—albeit a formidable one whose husband was a respected farmer in Domrémy—watching her girl evolve from a pious, illiterate farm girl into the inspiring 17-year-old military commander who led French troops to victory in the early 15th century. The familiar outlines are retained (Joan’s voices, military leadership, capture and imprisonment, trial, and execution) although the celebrities in her life are merely mentioned. Apart from several minor roles played by Daniel Pearce, and a lady-in-waiting (Olivia Gilliatt), the only significant personage is the anonymous Lady of the Court (sweetly played by understudy Kelley Curran when I attended), who kindly caters to Isabelle’s needs after she walks 300 miles to the Dauphin’s castle.
Anderson’s play, written in a slightly heightened vernacular blended, uncomfortably, with contemporary vulgarity and colloquialisms, is a stripped-down version of what happened, offering little insight into Joan’s tragedy. It focuses chiefly on how the initially skeptical Isabelle came to believe her daughter’s claims and then went from pride in Joan’s reflected glory to the agony of seeing her goddess in shining armor descend to rags and chains before being put to the flames.
Glenn Close is one of those actresses who could sell tickets to a reading of the phone book. Her Isabelle, something of a Mother Courage, is maternally wise, gently loving, violently angry, physically and emotionally pained, comically uncertain, and nobly outspoken. It’s a bravura performance but Close, even though she slightly coarsens her speech, never sheds her star aura enough to convince you she’s this roughhewn, 15th-century peasant experiencing real, not theatrical, shocks and glories.
Van Patten’s Joan, on the other hand, offers nothing close to bravura. She forces us to take it for granted that she’s got the charisma everyone speaks of or that she’s blessed with divine powers. For Joan-like radiance or even warlike determination, you have to turn to Isabelle.
Director Matt Penn has staged the play ably, supported by a who’s who design team of John Lee Beatty (scenery), Jane Greenwood (costumes), Lap Chi Chu (lighting), and Alexander Sovronsky and Joanna Lynne Staub (sound). They don’t make the play any better but they help make it nice to look at and listen to.
Mother of the Maid
Public Theater/Anspacher Theater
425 Lafayette Ave., NYC
Through December 23
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, and Theater Life.