MIDNIGHT COWBOY (John Schlesinger, 1969)
7 Ludlow St. between Canal & Hester Sts.
Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight star as the worst hustlers ever in John Schlesinger’s masterful Midnight Cowboy, screening November 21-28 in a new 4K restoration at Metrograph in advance of the film’s fiftieth anniversary. The only X-rated film to win a Best Picture Oscar, Midnight Cowboy follows the exploits of Joe Buck, a friendly sort of chap who leaves his small Texas town, determined to make it as a male prostitute in Manhattan. Wearing his cowboy gear and clutching his beloved transistor radio, he trolls the streets with little success. Things take a turn when he meets up with Enrico Salvatore “Ratso” Rizzo (Hoffman), an ill, hobbled con man living in a condemned building. The two loners soon develop an unusual relationship as Buck is haunted by nightmares, shown in black-and-white, about his childhood and a tragic event that happened to him and his girlfriend, Crazy Annie (Jennifer Salt), while Rizzo dreams of a beautiful life, depicted in bright color, without sickness or limps on the beach in Miami. Adapted by Waldo Salt (Serpico, The Day of the Locust) from the novel by James Leo Herlihy, Midnight Cowboy is essentially a string of fascinating and revealing set pieces in which Buck encounters unusual characters as he tries desperately to succeed in the big city; along the way he beds an older, wealthy Park Ave. matron (Sylvia Miles), is asked to get down on his knees by a Bible thumper (John McGiver), gets propositioned in a movie theater by a nerdy college student (Bob Balaban), has a disagreement with a confused older man (Barnard Hughes), and attends a Warholian party (thrown by Viva and Gastone Rosilli and featuring Ultra Violet, Paul Jabara, International Velvet, Taylor Mead, and Paul Morrissey) where he hooks up with an adventurous socialite (Brenda Vaccaro).
Photographed by first-time cinematographer Adam Holender (The Panic in Needle Park, Blue in the Face), the film captures the seedy, lurid environment that was Times Square in the late 1960s; when Buck looks out his hotel window, he sees the flashing neon, with a sign for Mutual of New York front and center, the letters “MONY” bouncing across his face with promise. The film, which was nominated for seven Oscars and won three (Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Director), is anchored by Harry Nilsson’s Grammy-winning version of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” along with John Barry’s memorable theme. Iconic shots are littered throughout, along with such classic lines as “I’m walkin’ here!,” that can be seen and heard better than ever in this restoration, which was approved by Holender.
MONROVIA, INDIANA (Frederick Wiseman, 2018)
MoMA Film, Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Wednesday, November 21, 7:00
Series runs through January 8
Master documentarian Frederick Wiseman shows a compelling slice of Middle American life in his forty-third film, Monrovia, Indiana, screening November 21 at 7:00 in MoMA’s annual series “The Contenders,” consisting of works the museum believes will last the test of time. Wiseman, who will turn eighty-nine on New Year’s Day, directed, edited, produced, and did the sound for the 143-minute documentary, gorgeously photographed by John Davey. The camera makes its way around the small town, showing zoning discussions at a town council meeting, an award given out by the Freemasons to one of its members, a trio of old men in a café comparing maladies, a high school teacher talking about the importance of sports, people getting their hair cut, women in an exercise class, employees at a pizza place making a special item, and pigs being rounded up into a truck. Wiseman goes to the local market, a farm equipment auction, the church, a fair, a veterinary office, the high school gym, and a gun shop, all shot with natural sound and light. In between are beautiful, short scenes of streets, farms, and buildings, with no voice-over narration or informational text. However, even in this age of Trump, with an ever-growing disparity between the two coasts and the rust and Bible belts, politics never enters the film, which instead focuses on genuine humanity and day-to-day existence.
“I thought a film about a small farming community in the Midwest would be a good addition to the series I have been doing on contemporary American life,” the Boston-born Wiseman, whose previous films include Titicut Follies, High School, Central Park, Ex Libris — The New York Public Library, and Boxing Gym, explains in his director’s statement. “Monrovia, Indiana, appealed to me because of its size (1,063 residents), location (I have never shot a film in the rural Midwest), and the shared cultural and religious interests within the community. During the nine weeks of filming, the residents of Monrovia were helpful, friendly, and welcoming and gave me access to all aspects of daily life. Life in big American cities on the East and West Coasts is regularly reported on and I was interested in learning more about life in small-town America and sharing my view.” And that’s exactly what the film, which is also showing at Film Forum through November 22, is, a helpful, friendly, and welcoming document of small-town America in the twenty-first century. “The Contenders” continues through January 8 with such other 2018 films as Spike Lee’s BlacKKKLansman (followed by a discussion with Lee), Paul Dano’s Wildlife (followed by a discussion with Dano, cowriter Zoe Kazan, and actors Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal), Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (followed by a discussion with Shrader and Ethan Hawke), and John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place (followed by a discussion with Krasinski).
Daryl Roth Theatre
103 East 15th St. between Irving Pl. & Park Ave.
Saturday - Tuesday through March 31, $55-$150
Gloria: A Life is being billed as a play about feminist icon Gloria Steinem, but that’s not completely accurate; it’s really more of an illustrated lecture/performance than a truly dramatic narrative, a relatively chronological recap of her life and career. Told by Oscar, Emmy, and Obie winner Christine Lahti as Steinem, complete with aviator sunglasses, bell-bottoms, and long brown hair, the story evolves as a diverse group of six women take on multiple roles. Tony-nominated writer Emily Mann (Having Our Say, Execution of Justice) and Tony-winning director Diane Paulus (The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, All the Way) capture Steinem’s greatest hits, from her early days in journalism, including her breakthrough Playboy bunny exposé, her New York magazine story on abortion, and the harsh misogyny she encountered, to her founding of Ms., her participation in the 2017 Women’s March, and her unfortunately brief marriage to David Bale. Lahti stays primarily in the center of Amy Rubin’s comfy theater-in-the-round set, which features rows of benches, each seat with its own brightly colored pillow back. Actresses Joanna Glushak, Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Patrena Murray, DeLanna Studi, and Liz Wisan portray various Steinem friends and enemies, colleagues, and family members, including Coretta Scott King, Bella Abzug, Wilma Mankiller, Florynce Kennedy, Dorothy Pitman Hughes, and Steinem’s mother.
Archival footage of Steinem is projected onto two walls of the theater, along with occasional live video of what’s happening onstage, primarily re-creations of actual interviews. It’s all fairly straightforward and lacking any real conflict; Lahti does not attempt to completely transform herself into Steinem — for example, she uses her real speaking voice and doesn’t change costumes or hairstyle to match the passing years — while the other actresses’ portrayals tend to be underwhelming or over the top. But the show is hard not to like as Steinem, now eighty-four and the author of such books as Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions and My Life on the Road, is a captivating figure and Lahti, sixteen years younger and the author of the new essay collection True Stories from an Unreliable Eyewitness: A Feminist Coming of Age, which features advance praise on the back cover from Steinem, is utterly charming as our host.
After ninety minutes, Gloria changes direction and turns into a Talking Circle where the audience in invited to participate in a discussion about the play, Steinem, or other issues related to feminism and the world today. A sign announces, “Lead with love. Low ego. High impact. Move at the speed of trust.” The night I went, Lahti moderated the conversation, but there are often special guests, such as Lena Dunham, Christiane Amanpour, Julie Menin, show consultant Kathy Najimy, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, and Steinem herself. It was a fascinating exchange of ideas about the absence of African American women in second-wave feminism, the decision to not mention Betty Friedan in the play, how the vast majority of the crew and producers are women, and the impact of current activist movements. Among those in the audience were Melissa Silverstein, cofounder and producing director of the Athena Film Festival at Barnard, New York City political stalwart Ruth Messinger, and a woman who once worked for Steinem, a self-described hope-aholic who, after all these years, still believes every one of us can make a difference.
The Broadway Theatre
1681 Broadway at 53rd St.
Tuesday - Saturday through April 14, $69 - $175
It isn’t beauty that kills the beast in the Broadway bust King Kong; it’s the music, lyrics, and story that lack the charm to soothe this savage breast, to paraphrase William Congreve. I don’t revel in taking yet more shots at the already brutally attacked musical, but I have little choice than to fire more artillery in the direction of the Broadway Theatre, where this travesty opened on November 8. King Kong himself, the eighth wonder of the world, is spectacular; designed by Sonny Tilders and Roger Kirk, lit by Peter Mumford, voiced by Jon Hoche, and operated by ten men and women, the one-ton, twenty-foot-high mechanical creature is just about everything you’d want from the beast. Unfortunately, the rest of the show is a hot mess. The songs by Marius de Vries and Eddie Perfect lack any kind of nuance (sample lyric: “Another arrow shoots Ann Darrow through the chest / But every ‘no’ only brings me closer to ‘yes’ / New York socked me with a body shot / But I’m not staying down / I’ll fight like hell / So ring that bell / Look who’s coming out swinging in the opening round.”) The direction and choreography by Drew McOnie is often head-scratchingly absurd, with several ensemble pieces seemingly there just to take up time and space. And Jack Thorne’s book puts too much of the focus on the Darrow character, resulting in yet another tired musical about a poor country girl desperate to make it big on the Great White Way.
Just as Darrow (Christiani Pitts) is about to give up on her dream, she is discovered by filmmaker Carl Denham (Eric William Morris), who whisks her off on an adventure on board the SS Wanderer, accompanied by his right-hand man, Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld). Captain Englehorn (Rory Donovan) wants to know where they’re going, but Denham is not about to say — until Skull Island appears before them. There they encounter King Kong, who falls for Darrow before being captured and brought to New York City, where things don’t go too well for him, or for us. The beast itself is breathtaking, especially when Peter England’s projections make it look like Kong is running through the jungle or the streets of the city and when he makes his way to the front of the stage, carefully scanning the audience while asserting his strength and power. But the watered-down version of the story and too many stultifying scenes — you might just get seasick during a stormy voyage, and what’s with those green things climbing through green laser beams? — zap all the energy out of this classic tale. “What an ugly beast the ape, and how like us,” Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero said in the first century BCE. In King Kong, virtually the only thing that isn’t ugly is the beast.
Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort St.
Through November 25, $18-$25
“Your perception creates the painting,” Mary Corse says in a video about her first museum survey, “Mary Corse: A Survey in Light,” continuing at the Whitney through November 25. Since the mid-1960s, the California native has been addressing unique aspects of light, time, and space in her paintings and sculptures, the vast majority of which are shades of white. Many of the works change as you approach them, appearing different when seen from different angles and distances, forming an ever-changing relationship between viewer, surface, and light. “Corse’s White Light paintings are not works that depict movement but rather works that embody, and require, movement. To truly see Corse’s art we must move: there is no ideal vantage point,” Whitney director Adam D. Weinberg writes in the foreword to the catalog. “As much as we might try, we cannot ever find the perfect viewing position; experiencing a Corse painting is in and of itself a process.” The exhibition consists of two dozen works ranging from shaped monochrome paintings, screenprints, and acrylic on wood and plexiglass to her White Light, Black Light, and Black Earth series, documenting her changing use of materials as she began incorporating glass microspheres (the material used to reflect light in road markings), hidden Tesla coils to transmit electricity, and argon gas into her work. “I try to bring reality into the painting,” she says in the video. “I try to bring the reality of our moment here on this ball of mud; it’s not that the painting relates to nature but it is nature.”
The work demands, and rewards, viewer engagement in a way that is distinct from that of other artists from the Light and Space movement, which includes James Turrell, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, and Doug Wheeler. Divided into “Beginnings,” “Painting with Light,” “Black Earth, Black Light,” and “New Forms in White Light,” the Whitney show traces Corse’s career and experimental process primarily chronologically as she followed her own path. In 1970, the Berkeley-born artist moved away from Los Angeles to live and work in remote Topanga Canyon, building her own kiln and enjoying a more private life. “Untitled (Two Triangular Columns),” a pair of eight-plus-feet-high white columns with a space between them, echoes such paintings as “Untitled (Hexagonal White)” and “Untitled (White Diamond, Negative Stripe),” which feature a strip running down their centers. An entrancing glowing light emanates from “Untitled (White Light Series)” and “Untitled (Space + Electric Light).” Shapes and colors shift as you make your way around “Untitled (White Grid, Vertical Strokes)” and “Untitled (Horizontal Strokes).” Such 1970s pieces as “Untitled (Black Light Painting)” and “Untitled (Black Earth Series)” offer a stark counterpoint to the white light works. The more recent Inner Band paintings are like optical illusions in subtle motion. Exhibition curator Kim Conaty writes in the catalog, “For Corse, the subjectivity of perception — the acknowledgment that everyone experiences visual phenomena differently — has been a consistent driving force in her artistic practice for more than fifty years.” This survey ably represents Corse’s career, a long overdue exhibition that is, dare we say, illuminating. (In addition, Dia:Beacon has a new gallery of Corse’s work on view through 2021.)
To celebrate the theatrical release of Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest work, Shoplifters, the Palme d’Or winner that opens November 23, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is presenting six of the master’s earlier tales, concentrating on his exquisite depiction of family life. Running November 19-22, the mini-festival provides a terrific entry into the oeuvre of Kore-eda, a visionary who tells a story like no one else. “Six by Kore-eda” begins with his first fiction film, Maborosi, which followed three documentaries (Lessons from a Calf, However . . . , August without Him). After Yumiko’s husband, Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano), mysteriously commits suicide, she (Makiko Esumi) gets remarried and moves to her new husband’s (Takashi Naitō) small seaside village home with her son (Gohki Kashima), where she begins to put her life back together. This stunning film is marvelously slow-paced, lingering on characters in the distance, down narrow alleys, across gorgeous horizons, with very little camera movement by cinematographer Masao Nakabori. Maborosi, the only one of his films he didn’t write — the screenplay is by Yoshihisa Ogita, based on the novel by Teru Miyamoto — is a stunning debut from one of the leading members of Japan’s fifth generation. It is screening at the Walter Reade Theater on November 19 at 6:30 and November 22 at 9:00
AFTER LIFE (WANDÂFURU RAIFU) (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 1998)
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater
Monday, November 19, 8:45
Thursday, November 22, 7:00
Kore-eda’s second narrative feature, After Life, is an eminently thoughtful film about two of his recurring themes: death and memory. Every Monday, the deceased arrive at a way station where they have three days to decide on a single memory they can bring with them into heaven. Once chosen, the memory is re-created on film, and the person goes on to the next step of his or her journey, to be replaced by a new batch of souls. The way station is staffed by guides, including Takashi Mochizuki (Arata), Shiori Satonaka (Erika Oda), and Satoru Kawashima (Susumu Terajima), whose job it is to interview the new arrivals and help them select a memory and then bring it to life on-screen. Some want to take with them an idyllic moment from childhood, others a remembrance of a lost love, but a few are either unable to or refuse to come up with one, which challenges the staff. Twenty-one-year-old Yūsuke Iseya declares, “I have no intention of choosing. None,” while seventy-year-old Ichiro Watanabe (Taketoshi Naito) is having difficulty deciding on the exact moment, reevaluating and reflecting on the life he led. As the week continues, the guides look back on their lives as well, sharing intimate details, one of which leads to an emotional finale.
Kore-eda, who previously examined memory loss in the documentary Without Memory and explored a family’s reaction to death in the brilliant Still Walking, interviewed some five hundred people about what memory they would take with them to heaven, and some of those nonprofessional actors are in the final cut of After Life, blurring the lines between fiction and reality. After Life is also very much about the art of filmmaking itself, as each memory is turned into a short movie created on a set and watched in a screening room. In fact, the film was inspired by Kore-eda’s memories of his grandfather’s battle with what would later be identified as Alzheimer’s disease; the director has also cited Ernst Lubitsch’s 1943 comedy, Heaven Can Wait, as an influence, and the Japanese title, Wandâfuru raifu, means “Wonderful Life,” evoking Frank Capra’s holiday classic. But Kore-eda never gets maudlin about life or death in the film, instead painting a memorable portrait of human existence and those simple moments that make it all worthwhile — and will have viewers contemplating which memory they would take with them.
NOBODY KNOWS (DAREMO SHIRANAI) (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2004)
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater
Tuesday, November 20, 6:00
Thursday, November 22, 4:00
Based on a true story that writer-director Kore-eda read about back in 1988, Nobody Knows is a heartwarming, heartbreaking film about four extraordinary half-siblings who must fend for themselves every time their mother takes off for extended periods of time. Japanese TV and pop star YOU makes her feature-film debut as Keiko, a young woman who has four kids by way of four different men. When she’s home, she shows affection for the children, but the problem is, she’s rarely home. Instead, twelve-year-old Akira (Yagira Yuya) must take care of the shy Kyoko (Kitaura Ayu), who handles the laundry; the troublemaker Shigeru (Kimura Hiei), who can’t follow the rules; and sweet baby Yuki (Shimizu Momoko), who likes chocolates and squeaky shoes. At first, it is charming and uplifting watching how Akira handles the complicated situation — the other kids are not allowed outside because the landlord will evict them if he finds out about them, and Akira even helps teach the family, who do not attend school — but as Keiko disappears for longer periods of time, the children’s lives grow more dire by the day as food and money start running out. Kore-eda, who also edited and produced this powerful picture, has created a moving, involving film that nearly plays like a documentary, avoiding melodramatic clichés and instead wrapping the audience up in the closeted life of four terrific kids whose tragic existence will ultimately break your heart.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (SOSHITE CHICHI NI NARU) (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2013)
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater
Tuesday, November 20, 8:45
Wednesday, November 21, 1:30
International cinema’s modern master of the family drama turns out another stunner in the Cannes Jury Prize winner Like Father, Like Son. Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) thinks he has the perfect life: a beautiful wife, Midori (Machiko Ono), a successful job as an architect, and a splendid six-year-old son, Keita (Keita Ninomiya). But his well-structured world is turned upside down when the hospital where Keita was born suddenly tells them that Keita is not their biological son, that a mistake was made and a pair of babies were accidentally switched at birth. When Ryota and Midori meet Yudai (Lily Franky) and Yukari Saiki (Maki Yoko), whose infant was switched with theirs, Ryota is horrified to see that the Saikis are a lower-middle-class family who cannot give their children — they have three kids, including Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang), the Nonomiyas’ biological son — the same advantages that Ryota and Midori can. Meanwhile, the two mothers wonder why they were unable to realize that the sons they’ve been raising are not really their own. As the two families get to know each other and prepare to switch boys, Ryota struggles to reevaluate what kind of a father he is, as well as what kind of father he can be.
Kore-eda wrote, directed, and edited Like Father, Like Son, imbuing the complex story with an Ozu-like austerity, examining a heartbreaking, seemingly no-win situation — one of every parent’s most-feared nightmares — with intelligence and grace. Musician and actor Fukuyama gives a powerfully understated performance as Ryota, a work-obsessed architect struggling to keep everything he has built from crumbling all around him. Novelist and actor Franky is excellent as his polar opposite, a man with a very different kind of verve for life. In Like Father, Like Son, Kore-eda, whose own father passed away ten years before and whose daughter was five years old when the film was made, once again explores the relationship between parents and children, this time focusing on the strong bonds created by both love and blood.
I WISH (KISEKI) (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2011)
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater
Wednesday, November 21, 4:00
Thursday, November 22, 1:30
Kore-eda’s I Wish is an utterly delightful, absolutely charming tale of family and all of the hopes and dreams associated with it. Real-life brothers Koki Maeda and Ohshirô Maeda of the popular MaedaMaeda comedy duo star as siblings Koichi and Ryu, who have been separated as a result of their parents’ divorce. Twelve-year-old Koichi (Koki) lives with his mother (Nene Ohtsuka) and maternal grandparents (Kirin Kiki and Isao Hashizume) in Kagoshima in the shadow of an active volcano that continues to spit ash out all over the town, while the younger Ryu lives with his father (Joe Odagiri), a wannabe rock star, in Fukuoka. When Koichi hears that if a person makes a wish just as the two new high-speed bullet trains pass by each other for the first time the wish will come true, he decides he must do everything in his power to be there, along with Ryu, so they can wish for their family to get back together. Kore-eda once again displays his deft touch at handling complex relationships in I Wish, the Japanese title of which is Kiseki, or Miracle.
Originally intended to be a film about the new Kyushu Shinkansen bullet train, the narrative shifted once Kore-eda auditioned the Maeda brothers, deciding to make them the center of the story, and they shine as two very different siblings, one young and impulsive, the other older and far more serious. Everyone in the film, child and adult, wishes for something more out of life, whether realistic or not. Ryu’s friend Megumi (Kyara Uchida) wants to be an actress; Koichi’s friend Makoto (Seinosuke Nagayoshi) wants to be just like his hero, baseball star Ichiro Suzuki; and the brothers’ grandfather wants to make a subtly sweet, old-fashioned karukan cake that people will appreciate. Much of the dialogue is improvised, including by the children, lending a more realistic feel to the film, although it does get a bit too goofy in some of its later scenes. Written, directed, and edited by Kore-eda, I Wish is a loving, bittersweet celebration of the child in us all.
STILL WALKING (ARUITEMO ARUITEMO) (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2008)
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater
Wednesday, November 21, 6:30
Thursday, November 22, 9:15
Flawlessly written, directed, and edited by Hirokazu Kore-eda, Still Walking follows a day in the life of the Yokoyama family, which gathers together once a year to remember Junpei, the eldest son who died tragically. The story is told through the eyes of the middle child, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), a forty-year-old painting restorer who has recently married Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), a widow with a young son (Shohei Tanaka). Ryota dreads returning home because his father, Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), and mother, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki), are disappointed in the choices he’s made, both personally and professionally, and never let him escape from Junpei’s ever-widening shadow. Also at the reunion is Ryota’s chatty sister, Chinami (You), who, with her husband and children, is planning on moving in with her parents in order to take care of them in their old age (and save money as well). Over the course of twenty-four hours, the history of the dysfunctional family and the deep emotions hidden just below the surface slowly simmer but never boil, resulting in a gentle, bittersweet narrative that is often very funny and always subtly powerful.
The film is beautifully shot by Yutaka Yamazaki, who keeps the camera static during long interior takes — it moves only once inside the house — using doorways, short halls, and windows to frame scenes with a slightly claustrophobic feel, evoking how trapped the characters are by the world the parents have created. The scenes in which Kyohei walks with his cane ever so slowly up and down the endless outside steps are simple but unforgettable. Influenced by such Japanese directors as Mikio Naruse, Yasujiro Ozu, and Shohei Imamura, Kore-eda was inspired to make the film shortly after the death of his parents; although it is fiction, roughly half of Toshiko’s dialogue is taken directly from his own mother. Still Walking is a special film, a visual and psychological marvel that should not be missed.
Anspacher Theater, the Public Theater
425 Lafayette St. at Astor Pl.
Tuesday through Sunday through December 23, $110
This decade has seen diverse takes on the story of Joan of Arc, the real-life fifteenth-century saint who led the bloody battle to return the French crown to French hands and put Charles VI on the throne. Each one, of course, focused on Joan herself, a young girl who claims to see visions of Saint Catherine, who commands her to lead the charge. Among the twenty-first-century Joans are Laura K. Nicoll in Reid Farrington’s The Passion Project at 3LD, Marion Cotillard in Côme de Bellescize’s concert staging of Arthur Honegger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake at Avery Fisher Hall, Jo Lampert in David Byrne’s Joan of Arc: Into the Fire at the Public, and Condola Rashad in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan on Broadway. But playwright Jane Anderson utilizes a different approach in Mother of the Maid, an intimate and involving play continuing at the Public’s Anspacher Theater through December 23. The protagonist here is Joan’s mother, Isabelle Arc, wonderfully portrayed as a religious, somewhat frumpy, very serious woman by six-time Oscar nominee, three-time Emmy winner, and three-time Tony winner Glenn Close, decidedly less glamorous and elegant than in her recent Broadway appearances in Sunset Boulevard and A Delicate Balance.
“Isabelle Arc is a god-fearing woman,” she tells the audience in the third person at the start. “She can neither read nor write and her skirts smell ripe as a cheese. But she can do all sorts of handy things such as gutting a lamb, lancing a boil, and hiding the family valuables during a raid. She’s never blamed God for a blessed thing.” She lives on a farm with her husband, Jacques (Dermot Crowley), their son, Pierre (Andrew Hovelson), and Joan (Grace Van Patten); they are a peasant family barely getting by. So Joan’s parents and Pierre don’t take too kindly to her announcement that Saint Catherine is ordering her to go into battle to put the dauphin on the throne. “I’m having holy visions, Ma,” Joan explains. “She fills me. She slays me. She takes me apart,” she adds about the saint. Her father whips her while Pierre and Isabelle watch. “I’m not confused. I’m furious. You’re a stubborn, reckless girl and you have no idea what you’re doing,” Isabelle says. But when local priest Father Gilbert (Daniel Pearce) informs them that the Bishop of Vaucouleurs believes that Joan is the Virgin Maid foretold in prophecies, Isabelle relents. “Our girl’s been chosen and we both should be fierce proud,” she says to Jacques. So Joan heads off on her journey, accompanied by her brother, leaving their parents to wait and worry.
Mother of the Maid is a moving, poignant mother-daughter drama; at its heart is the age-old story of a beloved child leaving the nest, only in this case on the wings of angels, and with a bit more at risk. Van Patten holds her own with Close, employing a tough Brooklyn tomboy image as Joan’s power rises, then falls. John Lee Beatty’s cramped wood-based set features a revolving section that rotates from farm to royal court to dungeon, sharply lit by Lap Chi Chu. Jane Greenwood’s period costumes range from bright, bold colors to more earthy tones. Emmy winner Anderson (Olive Kitteridge, Defying Gravity) and Emmy-nominated director Matthew Penn (The Root), who worked with Close on the television series Damages, focus on the relationship between the characters, which also include the Lady of the Court (usually played by Kate Jennings Grant, although I saw a fine Kelley Curran), who is accustomed to the luxuries the Arcs have never known, and her lady-in-waiting, Monique (Olivia Gilliatt). Most of the action occurs offstage, but the narrative never feels explanatory; instead, it’s a potent look at family and responsibility, a familiar historical tale told from a different perspective, breathing new life into an ever-beguiling warhorse, anchored by a pair of outstanding actors, one as a nearly forgotten woman trying to adapt to the present, the other ready to leap into the future.