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New York City Theater

"Mother of the Maid"
Public Theater

Even Joan of Arc had a mother, a doting one at that. In Jane Anderson’s “Mother of the Maid,” Glenn Close gives a bravura performance as Isabelle Arc, mom to Joan. that strange girl who hears voices, dresses like a man and leads soldiers into battle. After initial hesitations, Isabelle gives into her daughter’s choices but, of course, Joan will pay for her boldness -- we know that from the start.

Not just through history but also dramas are we familiar with the character, starting with the unsurpassable Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s 1928 silent film, “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” Others who conquered are Uta Hagen in Shaw’s "St. Joan,” Julie Harris in Anouilh’s “The Lark” and Ingrid Bergman in Maxwell Anderson’s “Joan of Lorraine.”

“Mother of the Maid” has neither the philosophical heft of Shaw nor the piercing emotionalism of Anouilh nor the sweep of Anderson. Rather, it’s an agile but shallow take on how Joan’s upbringing in a pious, uneducated peasant family influenced her life. In particular, however, as the title states, it’s her mother’s story.

Even when she’s leading an army, even when she’s matching wits with royalty, Joan remains a young woman tied to her homestead. Presented as a naïve but heroic youngster, she’s never allowed to escape her childhood. The question is how such a sharp-witted, brave young woman emerged from such simple circumstances.

Anderson doesn’t play footsie with the facts: Joan hears (or imagines she hears) the voice of God through St. Catherine’s bidding her lead the French against the English in the 15th-century’s Hundred Years War. Heeding the call, she repairs to the court of the Dauphin, whom she promises she will make king, as she eventually does. Yet, when she’s captured, the now King Charles VII does nothing to ransom her, preferring not further to stir the wrath of the conquering English.

All that is peripheral to what Isabelle feels and does. A religious woman, she puts her faith in a muscular Catholicism; later, she’s not afraid of petitioning the pope to reverse charges against Joan. Following her daughter to court, she’s coddled and condescended to by a sympathetic noblewoman, and stands amazed at all the pomp and ostentation. When Joan gets an arrow in her shoulder, mom treats it. When Joan is muddied, Isabelle washes her body. When Joan is about to be executed, mother comforts her as best she can before letting out howls of pain.

Anderson uses no fancy words, no flights of poetry. It’s all so matter of fact. Phrases like “Oh, come on” and “Get over it” are mixed in. This is an advantage (it makes the characters into human, not stained-glass figures) and disadvantage (we lose the nobility of Joan’s cause).

But, then, nobility and worship are not the goals. It’s Isabelle we identify with. Close’s fiery, earthy, touching performance of a woman in distress is about as far from the elegance of her Norma Desmond as possible.

Is the evening as a whole moving? Not really. The characters around Close exist only in her spotlight. Whether getting tipsy on mead or admiring the royal dishes or fiercely protecting Joan (“My daughter’s not an animal!”), Close dominates, tracing the journey from doubt to belief with vigor and determination.

Admirably, “Mother of the Maid” does not gloss over rawness What the author deems “pure goodness” is not idolatry. Director Matthew Penn avoids mush in favor of toughness. When Joan first announces, “Ma, I’m having visions,” Ma’s first reaction is to belt her one.

--David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 4, 2018

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