BWW Review: Glenn Close is Joan of Arc's Bewildered Mom in Jane Anderson's MOTHER OF THE MAID
Behind most poverty-to-celebrity stories, there's usually a hard-working parent or two who dreamed of a better life for their child, but perhaps never imagined that better life might include rock stardom, athletic heroism or, in the case of Jane Anderson's Mother of the Maid, breaking all gender molds to lead an army that will free their enslaved country.
Subtitled "The sorry tale of Joan of Arc as seen through the eyes of her mum," the somewhat quirky, often intriguing drama begins with the weary title character hunched over a stool in her modest shack of a farmhouse, picking the burrs and pricklys out of a pile of freshly shorn sheep's wool.
"Isabelle Arc is a God-fearing woman," she says of herself. "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."
As played by Glenn Close, Isabelle is a gritty, hearty woman, speaking in a harsh accent that might remind some Public Theater playgoers of far off outer-borough enclaves.
Her daughter Joan (Grace Van Patten) at first appears like a typical restless teen who, in her mother's eyes, will straighten up once she finds a man to marry her. Isabelle is a bit bewildered when her daughter says that the voice of St. Catherine has informed her that God wants her to lead the French army that will unite the country under the Dauphin Charles and drive out the English, but when Joan reveals that a French captain has made arrangements to have an escort take her to see Charles in two weeks, she's outright furious.
Imagine a conservative 1960s housewife being told by her daughter that she's joining a feminist march and you'll get a sense of the scene Anderson has scripted for their first confrontation, which ends with a slap in the face and an outcry of "Go to hell."
As far as Joan's father Jacques (Dermot Crowley) is concerned, she might as well have told him she's hopping into a van with a bunch of friends and following the Grateful Dead on tour.
"No daughter of mine is going whoring after an army!," he yells while trying to beat some sense into her.
But despite the brutal treatment. Anderson makes it clear that Joan's parents are trying to protect her from being raped and slaughtered, as they simply can't imagine the possibility of anything more for their daughter than the drudgery of the simple farm life they live.
Their attitude changes once they see the kind of celebrity lifestyle Joan enjoys at the palace after winning a few battles.
Kate Jennings Grant is terrific as a lady of the court who greets the travel-weary Isabelle with the sharp professionalism of an executive assistant. ("I'm so sorry you've had to wait. Your daughter's leaving for the siege tomorrow and she has a lot of people to see before she goes.") A highlight of John Lee Beatty set is a banquet hall packed with tables that are overloaded with scrumptious-looking food.
Even though Father Gilbert (Daniel Pearce) insisted that Joan's role with the army would surely be no more than to provide symbolic inspiration, her older brother Pierre (Andrew Hovelson) describes his sister's bravery and leadership on the battlefield while defending his perceived hesitancy to get into the fight by arguing that he's watching her back.
When Joan enters, decked out in armor, she's a vision of curt, businesslike confidence as she dictates a letter warning the son of Burgundy, "God and the Maid will strike you down and your soldiers' blood will soak the ground and water the lilies of France that will spring up in the path of your defeat."
If the Arcs come off a bit like a medieval version of a contemporary celebrity family, that appears to be the intent of Anderson and director Matthew Penn, as they mix the language and attitudes of the 15th and 21st Centuries.
"Look at me! I'm the Mother of the Maid!," exclaims Isabelle.
Of course, it isn't exactly a spoiler to reveal that success doesn't last long for Joan, but before the tragic finish, Anderson provides a touching scene where the mother tries comforting her daughter with memories of better times.
A frequent subject for playwrights, Joan of Arc has been depicted as a saint, a warrior, an icon, a feminist, a superstar... But to see her as a daughter through the eyes of her mother is an angle that hasn't been tackled in any majors works, making Mother of the Maid a unique, and, as scripted by Jane Anderson, an interesting and entertaining venture.