Joan of Arc and I have an “it’s complicated” relationship. I get the magnetism that keeps theater folk coming back to her, but I think she belongs in the same box, strangely, as Macbeth — the box labeled “Much Trickier Than Advertised; Not Just About Swords; Stage at Own Risk.” There’s another article to be written about all the things that make theatricalizing Joan deceptively difficult, including but not limited to our superficial reading of her as a feminist hero, our tendency to valorize her zeal rather than examine her fanaticism, and the way that even in an overwhelmingly secular age (at least in the theater) we never seem to question the very idea of her saintliness. It’s refreshing, then, to come across a play that does the last of those things with surprising humor and tenderness.
Jane Anderson’s Mother of the Maid, now at the Public in a production built around Glenn Close, approaches the saint sideways. It takes the Amadeus approach: peering through the thick buildup of history and legend with the eyes of a minor character. Close plays Joan’s mother Isabelle, an illiterate peasant woman who worships earnestly, toils uncomplainingly, and has done her best to “raise [her children] up right.” Anderson’s insight is to use a maternal perspective, necessarily both loving and critical, to reframe Joan as the thing we can be certain she actually was: a teenager. Though its form and tone are more TV-ish than strikingly theatrical, Mother of the Maid succeeds at a hard job: rehumanizing a myth.
Anderson, who also wrote How to Make an American Quilt and the recent Glenn Close film The Wife, has a finely tuned ear for the intimate quirks of domestic conversation. She knows the patterns, habits, and tones of voice that come with, say, trying to have the sex talk with your child, or trying to keep peace at the dinner table, or of a family outing somewhere new and fascinating and a bit shameful in its extravagance. Part of the charm of Mother of the Maid is seeing all these familiar situations dressed up in leggings and leather, as the Arc family attempts to navigate their daughter’s extraordinary circumstances. The play’s trajectory is simple and the same as most Joan retellings — it begins with the visions and ends, roughly, with the stake — but for a long time, the tone is light and full of discovery. It’s a comedy, until it’s not. Anderson and director Matthew Penn realize that suspense isn’t a factor in the story they’re telling. We all know how this one ends, so it’s a question of showing us something new along the way, of surprising us not necessarily with the what but the how.
As experienced by Isabelle, Joan’s story is never, or rarely, larger than life — after all, no matter what her daughter becomes, Isabelle’s the one who “cleaned her nose [and] wiped her bum [and] picked the knots out of her hair.” When Joan stalks in, sensitive and surly, at the play’s beginning, her eventual confession to her mother that she’s been “having holy visions” is less ecstatic than it is moody, vulnerable, and awkward. Grace Van Patten — with her slight frame, tense shoulders, and an affected gruffness in her voice — is channelling pure 16-year-old angst, and Close steps around her carefully, with just the right combination of warmth and impatience. “Why are you working there in the dim? Move over here where you can see,” she says to her daughter, who’s fuming while she picks burrs out of a basket of sheep’s wool, and I felt a swell of amusement and affection that would often return throughout the play. Trying to give us more light, trying to help us see better — in funny and profound ways, it’s such a mom thing.
And sometimes the process is uncomfortable. Isabelle shocks her daughter, who’s got a teenager’s puritanical sense of horror, when she tiptoes into It’s Perfectly Normal territory. “I just need to say one thing,” Isabelle begins, speaking more pointedly than necessary to hide her own nervousness. “Don’t get worked up, now. When I was bringing up your lunch, I saw you lying on the ground in the upper field. Whatever you’d been doing — ain’t nothing so terrible. It’s a normal part of wanting a man.” Van Patten’s reaction is essentially “OMG MOM GROSS,” but the conversation riles her up enough to come clean. “Saint Catherine been appearing to me,” she finally tells her mother, on the verge of very serious tears (more about the characters’ accents later). It seems that when Saint Catherine appears, Joan feels her in her heart and in her groin, that “everything gets real sharp, vibrant-like,” and the girl and the saint “come together.”
The overlap of religious and sexual ecstasy isn’t a new idea, but I’ve never heard it specifically applied to Joan of Arc before, and I have to admit, I’m into it. Anderson isn’t heavy-handed about her play’s queer themes — Isabelle and Joan might not even have the language to discuss what’s happening — but Mother of the Maid makes clear that 16-year-old Joan doesn’t want a man at all, that she never will, and that perhaps her holy visions are arising partly from a surfeit of earthly feeling that she cannot name. Later, in an affecting scene leading up to Joan’s execution, where Anderson wisely avoids becoming too maudlin, the frightened, exhausted girl turns to her mother: “Don’t be sad that I never had a fellow, Ma,” she says, “I would of made a lousy wife.” Close laughs instead of crying as she washes Van Patten’s dirty limbs with a rag, and it’s clear that mother and daughter understand each other, whether or not they’ve got words for it. “I know, honey,” Isabelle smiles, “you would’ve been a wretch.”
Close’s Isabelle is loving, sympathetic, a good listener, an ardent advocate, and infinitely supportive of her daughter — even if it means walking 300 miles to the French court to see her after she’s ridden off to inspire the Dauphin’s faltering armies. The friend who saw the show with me called her a Manic Pixie Dream Mom. She’s not wrong, but it’s also rare and rather wonderful to see a play about a mother where the story is driven not by the woman’s flaws but by her strengths. It’s easy to get bored by Good-with-a-capital-G characters — that’s why we like our Satans, our Richard III’s, our Medeas — but with Isabelle, Anderson has threaded a tricky needle: She’s created a good human, not a perfect one but a really good one, and without an overabundance of sentimentality, she’s kept us interested in her.
It’s partly those poignant little moments of one-to-one correlation with our own experience. When Close’s Isabelle excitedly tells Joan that she too has had a vision of Saint Catherine — that she prayed and the saint came to her in a beam of light — her daughter frowns, with that half-condescending pity of the young for the old, and tells her mother that that’s not how “a real visitation” works. Close’s underplayed, bashful response — “Aren’t I a dope” — is a mini-heartbreaker. She sounds like a mom whose kid has just shown her how to use her brand-new AOL account. And when she and her husband Jacques (Dermot Crowley) travel to court to visit both Joan and her brother Pierre (Andrew Hovelson), who’s living it up in his sister’s shadow, Close’s bubbly wonder and Crowley’s gruff skepticism make a perfect picture of a pair of parents from the sticks spending their first night in a fancy hotel, paid for by their unexpectedly successful kid. “It’s ridiculous big,” Jacques grunts about their room, but Isabelle overtakes him exuberantly: “He’s just saying that. He loves the room. Couldn’t get him out of bed!” Then she turns to Pierre with childlike enthusiasm: “Sweetheart, do they have unicorns here?”
Anderson gives Isabelle plenty of moments of naïveté, but they never feel like they come at the character’s expense. She also gives us plenty of Isabelle’s backbone, and a smart portrayal of class relations through Isabelle’s interactions with a court lady named Nicole (Kate Jennings Grant, smiling and bubbling like some ingratiating secretary out of The Devil Wears Prada, medieval gown in place of heels and midi-skirt). Nicole is infatuated with Joan’s celebrity — she offers to wash Isabelle’s feet because some other court lady got to Joan’s first — and she’s also a mother of girls, who she’s afraid are growing up spoiled and empty-headed despite her best efforts “to make them care about deeper things.” She makes all the well-meaning missteps of a person of vast privilege trying to “relate” to someone who doesn’t have much, but Anderson doesn’t turn her into a caricature. Nicole is sincere and sympathetic, if a touch obsequious, but she and Isabelle are speaking across a wide, wide gap, and Isabelle can see the chasm more clearly. When Joan is captured by the English and the French court refuses to ransom her, all Nicole can offer the hero’s desperate mother are those too familiar trifles: her thoughts and prayers.
If anything disrupts Mother of the Maid’s effective feel for very real domestic and social dynamics, it’s a theatrical rusticness in the actors’ approach to the language that feels both a bit made-up (“This is how 15th-century peasants talk!”) and inconsistent. Anderson’s text implies some of this tone — characters say “I seen him looking at you” not “I’ve seen” — and Penn pushes it hard: No one in the Arc family puts a ‘g’ on the end of any participle (doin’, diddlin’, prayin’), and this speech pattern plays differently for every actor who’s got to commit to it. Van Patten sounds tough and vaguely New York–y, Hovelson sounds almost midwestern, and Close sounds a bit like an inhabitant of the Shire. Only Crowley is fully at home in his voice, and especially as the play goes on, his portrayal of Joan’s brusque, suspicious father — the counterweight to Close’s undaunted, adaptable Isabelle — becomes truly gut-wrenching.
The decision to lean into peasant-speak comes hand in hand with the play’s design, which roots us pretty literally in 1412. John Lee Beatty’s set of slatted walls, heavy wooden beams, and an effectively compact turntable definitely gets a lot of oomph out of the shallow Anspacher space, though I sometimes wondered what a sparer, less cinematic aesthetic would do for the play. And though it’s difficult for medieval costumes, no matter how well-researched, not to make the “Ren Faire!” neuron fire in our minds, Jane Greenwood gets some lovely nods to the visual history of Joan of Arc into her design. Van Patten first enters looking like she walked out of Jules Bastien-Lepage’s 1879 painting, and later, when she appears in her armor, page-boy-haired and a little power-drunk, her impressive getup contains echoes of Jules Eugène Lenepveu’s, Albert Lynch’s, and Ingres’s renderings of the young saint.
It isn’t warrior Joan, though, that creates the play’s most powerful impression. At the close of Mother of the Maid’s first act, Isabelle finally reaches the French court, where her daughter has been away for months, preparing to lead France to a holy victory. Worn out, overwhelmed, and covered in mud, Isabelle won’t be put off by her now-famous daughter’s messages that “she’ll be available to see [her mother] after dinner.” She’s all set to give Joan a piece of her mind, when Beatty’s set suddenly transforms into a candlelit chapel, and Joan descends a golden set of stairs, robed in white and cleaner and calmer than we’ve ever seen her. Close drops to her knees as Van Patten glows — a child who wants her mother’s approval and who only half understands what she’s been swept up in, smiling out through the picture of a saint. It’s a stunning image, and it makes startlingly clear that Joan is now two beings: a real girl and a man-made legend. For Isabelle, it’s a moment of wonder, pride, deep love, and, inevitably, loss. Because the men who made the legend will ultimately kill the girl.
Mother of the Maid is at the Public Theater through December 23.