By EDWARD RUBIN
People on trial, especially women who end up being executed, make good subjects for theater and film, as well as objects of art. The two reigning ladies, 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 continue 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 Theater in New York City through December 23, 2018, is Jane Anderson’s Mother of Maid, starring Glenn Close as Joan of Arc’s mother. I might add, before going any further, that three major reasons 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 the second go ’round for Mother of the Maid, as the play had its world premiere at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts in 2015. Since then, Anderson restructured the piece by eliminating one character 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 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. Throughout these tellings, it is Joan herself who appears front, center, and in our face. Not so in Anderson’s version.
Though half of the play’s title, her Joan of Arc (Grace Van Patten) is the main topic of everybody’s attention, from her mother Isabelle (Glenn Close), to her father Jacques (Dermot Crowley) and even her brother Pierre (Andrew Hovelson), who follows her into battle. All of the other minor characters come across (in all but her one prison scene) as background fodder, major minor second fiddles, if you will.
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 Marie Antoinette as well.
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 fact, the overtly simple, seven-scene play, which presents all the characters in an annoying folksy contemporary vein (this 15th century Joan keeps calling her mother “Ma”) is, at best, a Cliff Notes version of the actual Joan of Arc story. It can also be viewed in its simplicity, as an 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, 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 Antoinette and Joan, both highly documented in their own times, are just the place to be. 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 Dauphin, who was her mentor (and who among us would not want to be a fly on the wall?) take place off stage.
Although all of the secondary actors in Mother of the Maid, including Crowley (Joan’s father, Jacques), Hovelson (her brother Pierre) and Daniel Pearce, who plays three roles (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, who is most interesting.
Though Grant’s role as a noblewoman is on the smaller side, and she appears in only two scenes, her character, the play’s least rigid, is the only one I wanted to see more of. Her skill in showing compassion, motherly love, friendship, and true self-reflection, is mesmerizing in its honesty. Equally alluring, in view of the extreme seriousness of Joan’s plight and her parents’ 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 are the magic hands of scenic designer John Lee Beatty, and costume designer Jane Greenwood, who take us from the drab brown and grey settings of the Arc family home in Domrémy, in northeastern France, to the bright and colorful, ornately designed chamber in the Dauphin’s castle.
Least satisfying is the performance of Grace Van Patten. Try as she does, pitted against the play’s more seasoned actors, and tethered to a weak script to boot, Patten’s Joan strains believability, 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. It is 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, what happened to them after Joan’s death.
The father’s tale, though he always suspected that harm would come to his daughter, is most heartbreaking. Sparing his wife the horror of watching Joan at the stake, he sent Isabelle off to a chapel to the other end of the city so she would be spared the smell of the smoke. Wanting his daughter to know he was proud of her. he stayed to the bitter end, “till every last trace of his girl was gone.” He didn’t leave until the soldiers scooped up her charred remains and threw them into the river. It must have taken its toll as Jacques died in the ox cart on the way home. “His heart seized up. It was grief,” Isabelle informs us.
As far as Pierre, something of a wastrel, he too showed up for the burning as well, but he spent most of “his time in a tavern drinking himself sick. He paid his bar bill with a hank of his sister’s hair that he kept in a pouch along with the tip of the arrow he once pulled from her flesh. He went back to the army, drank some more, and prayed to God that he’d get hit.”
Of course, the indomitable Close gets the last word. “Isabelle Arc was never going to get over it. Never. But she wasn’t going to fade away in the dark of an empty house. She got herself a proper horse and wagon and she traveled. She learned herself how to read. She went to Rome and she met with the Pope and told that man in the hat her daughter was no bloody heretic. She faced a tribunal of clergy, three rows of them in robes black as crows, all of them just waiting for the poor dim peasant woman to fall to pieces. But she didn’t. Isabelle Arc stared those bastards down and she cleared her Joanie’s name.”
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 wild flowers — how do such delicate things manage to push their way up out of the dirt. And all those silly bees digging in to 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.”
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)
Set: John Lee Beatty, Costumes: Jane Greenwood, Lighting Design: Lap Chi Chu, Sound: Alexander Sovronsky & Joanna Lynn Lynne Staub
(Mother of the Maid runs at the Anspacher Theater at the Public Theater now through December 23, 2018. Running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes with a 15-minute intermission. Written by Jane Anderson and directed by Matthew Penn, tickets are available here.)