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.