A saint’s best friend is her mother in MTC Joan of Arc play
Whether or not you buy into the idea of history as a collection of exploits of various remarkable individuals, Joan of Arc stands out as a startlingly exceptional figure.
Born a French peasant in 1421, Jeanne d’Arc declared that visions of saints and angels had instructed her to help free France from English rule in the latter days of the Hundred Years War. Becoming a major inspirational figure, she led troops into battle, was finally captured and handed over to the English, tried for heresy and burned at the stake at age 19.
A new play at Marin Theatre Company asks the obvious question: What must Joan’s mother have thought of all this?
“Mother of the Maid” premiered last year at New York’s Public Theater starring Glenn Close, but its West Coast premiere in Marin is a bit of a homecoming for playwright Jane Anderson, a Bay Area native and longtime part-time Nicasio resident whose play, “The Quality of Life,” was performed aT ACT in 2008.
The play follows Joan’s mother, Isabelle, from her early bewilderment at her daughter’s talk of visions of St. Catherine to struggling to keep up with Joan’s sudden rise to prominence and prestige, and her equally sudden fall.
Some of the early scenes are packed with humor, especially in the rough manners of Rosie Hallett’s sullen, stubborn and plain-spoken Joan. Mission from God or no, Hallett’s Joan is formidable, more than able to hold her own in the sudden bursts of violence that pepper family arguments.
The resonant staging by artistic director Jasson Minadakis (fresh from helming MTC’s last show, “Sovereignty”) features a pitch-perfect cast of MTC veterans.
Sherman Fracher is funny as Isabelle in her easy acceptance of her daughter’s holy visitations — at least until she starts talking about running off with the army. She’s almost blindly reverent of authority, especially from clergy, but she’s also proud in a way that comes out beautifully in dialogue with Marin-bred Liz Sklar as a relentlessly friendly and well-meaning, but also deeply privileged, lady of the court who can’t help but condescend, even when she doesn’t mean to.
San Anselmo’s Scott Coopwood is fumingly curmudgeonly as father Jacques, but in a way that makes it clear that his stubborn contrariness is deeply rooted in worry about his daughter’s safety. His quiet, brooding reaction to Joan’s fate is even more heartrending than Isabelle’s understandably much more dramatic display of grief.
San Rafael native Brennan Pickman-Thoon, the sole newcomer to MTC’s stage, is amusingly boisterous and quarrelsome as Joan’s brother, Pierre, who accompanies her to court and revels in how cool it all is, while she more fixedly goes about her mission.
Robert Sicular exudes a fascinating mixture of genuine sympathy and priestly posturing as Father Gilbert, the local priest who confidently parrots the latest word from his superiors, as if it’s what he’s always said and indeed the only thing that could be said.
In Sean Fanning’s impressive set, the skeletal wooden kitchen of the humble family home obscures the grand marble arches of the palace. The only shame is that later events move too quickly for the terrific shack set to be reassembled for brief returns home.
Sara Huddleston’s sound design is liberally peppered with birdsong, hauntingly echoed in Penina Biddle-Gottesman’s birdlike wordless vocals in Chris Houston’s lovely score. Sarah Smith’s period costumes aptly highlight class divides between the peasants and nobility, and Chris Lundahl’s lighting practically becomes a character in all the talk of divine visitations.
The second act is inevitably far less irreverent than the first, as Joan and her family get caught up in the merciless machine of war, politics and history. That’s when the real tragedy comes for Isabelle, but it’s also when the play becomes a lot more straightforward in its retelling of the story of Joan of Arc. Isabelle remains a refreshing and sympathetic point of view character, however, and Anderson cleverly finds excuses for her to be present at key moments.
There have been many depictions of Joan of Arc onstage, from the mocking depiction in William Shakespeare’s “Henry VI, Part 1” to George Bernard Shaw’s heroic “Saint Joan” and several versions by Bertolt Brecht. Those are hard acts to follow, but Anderson’s play is a welcome addition to the mix.
— Sam Hurwitt, Marin IJ Read full review