Joan of Arc lived for about 19 years on this earth. However brief her life, Joan enthralled artists. In every century, they have made her the subject of works of literature, painting, sculpture, film, plays, even operas. She was a darling of the Catholic Church, which canonized her in 1920. And the French declared her one of the country’s nine secondary patron saints. If we view her inimitable character, dramatic adventures, visions, and brutal death, Joan of Arc remains “larger than life.” Indeed, her mysterious divinity inspires us. But it is her humanity that infuses Jane Anderson’s Mother of the Maid currently at the Public Theater.
What does a mother (the ineffable Glenn Close) do with a forthright, determined, headstrong daughter? (Grace Van Patten’s Joan is solid throughout.) She pushes back. Until one retreats or the other relents and acquiesces, sturm und drang will characterize their relationship. Anderson sustains the pressure and strain between Isabelle and Joan.
Only upon Joan’s reckoning with destiny, when her reaction touches off a veritable cataclysm of agony for Isabelle, does their conflict end. When Isabelle recovers after her husband Jacques’ death, she gains her own identity, burnished by the flames of Joan’s burning. Then she charges into history and writes her own exalted epilogue. Finally, she memorializes her great love for her amazing child and eventually acquires justice.
Anderson reveals the mother/daughter conflict at the outset of the play. With organic logic, economy, and adroitly crafted portrayals, she elucidates their disparate natures. Close and Van Patten are perfectly suited for their emotional sparring and jousting matches. As Isabelle attempts to interpret Joan’s behavior, we understand the dynamic extremes between the divinely called Joan, and the earthly-minded Isabelle. Indeed, Anderson capitalizes upon our knowledge of Joan of Arc’s canonization by the Catholic Church. For at the very least we find humorous Isabelle’s doubts about Joan’s “wild” determination to “lead an army and drive the English out of France.”
Anderson ingeniously reveals how Joan must persuade her parents to let her go. Obediently, she allows them to beat her and does not run away. She will remain steadfast unto death, even if they kill her to forestall her crazy plans. Ironically, her parents give her a worse time of accepting her anointing than the “captain up at the castle,” who will escort her to the Dauphin (heir apparent). Because she believes Joan lives in God’s will, Isabelle sees that beatings have no impact. This turning point reveals the family’s enlightenment. Indeed, Isabelle recognizes and admires the similarity of piety and determination between Joan and herself. Thus, Isabelle and Jacques acquiesce to Joan. And with humility they acknowledge she is in God’s grace. Notably, their agreement and support seem miraculous.
Joan’s greatness spins off at this juncture of having to deal with mom and dad. After Joan leaves her home and confronts the passion of God’s plans for France, her earthly persona gradually dissolves. Through various interactions with her mom along their journey, we and Isabelle watch in awe how Joan evolves into the Maid of Orleans. Yet Jacques and Isabelle fear and doubt her every step. After her successful battles they eventually join her to celebrate the Dauphin’s coronation as Charles VII, King of France. And then of course, the situation worsens and their fears escalate, unabated by faith or the King’s help.
We discover in the first segment that the measures her parents took to stop her ironically strengthened Joan’s will. Eventually, her persistence and faith and their final spiritual illumination bring them to agreement, but only momentarily. We see the importance of Joan’s family to her character, and how their doubts and misgivings buffet her. Her father distrusts the soldiers, her cause, the church, the King, the English. And Joan must counter his arguments with reason and faith. Likewise, she and her mother develop as they abrade each other’s wits and souls. From these battles, Joan’s mind and spirit become tempered to confront her accusers and astound them. Thus, in historical archives, her trial and her death sentence appear unjustly ludicrous and political in the face of her innocence.
To the very end, Joan chooses to carve out her own path with passionate enthusiasm. Though sometimes misery caves in her energy, she always remains in defiance of her mother’s doubt. This courage to overcome her parents’ fears helps her overcome her own. As Anderson draws her, we glean how parental forces, primarily Isabelle’s, shape this illiterate teenage girl’s extraordinary character.
After each plateau of her journey, Isabelle shifts between the joy of seeing her daughter’s success and the pain of fearing her injury and torture by the British. After Joan’s capture Isabelle embarks on her own path to greatness and individuality. After an incredible adventure she arrives to minister to Joan in prison. But Joan does not receive her mother’s adjurations to recant and save herself from the fire. Once again the earthly Isabelle strives against the divinely inspired Joan.
For her miserable part, Joan attempts to maintain her strength but falters at the injustices done to her spirit. Yet her faith never falters, a marvel to the witnessing Isabelle, who wants her daughter to stay alive.
The rendering of the prickly mother-and-daughter relationship is a strong point of the production. We’re engaged to empathize with these simple yet profound human beings. We see that Joan became this incredible personage with the assistance principally of her mother, and also of her father and brother.
The scenes ground the miraculous past, present, and future trenchantly in logic. Eagerly, we throw ourselves into this journey with Isabelle. And we hope against hope that God and St. Catherine will see Joanie through, knowing the opposite will occur. Anderson’s delicious infusion of Joan’s divinity with reality and the elevation of Isabelle and Jacques from their mundane existence is inspired! Shepherded by the sterling direction of Matthew Penn, Close and Van Patten enthrall us. Both fiercely breathe life into a legend we find hard to fathom, yet here we try because we see Joan from Isabelle’s perspective.
We watch Isabelle evolve as a mother inspired by her daughter’s calling. Indeed, at the court and visiting Joan in prison she becomes Joan’s handmaiden. While Close inhabits this “mother for all time,” Van Patten wears Joan’s anointing and humanity credibly. Through their exceptional portrayals we understand the complexity of their relationship and the powerful impact of their love for one another. Not only do we realize Isabelle’s faith, courage, and humility in navigating the pretensions of the royal court. We become immersed in her torment as she assists Joan through the sham trial and inevitable death sentence. The second act is particularly chilling and suspenseful, driven by Isabelle’s (Close is wonderful) urgency.
Close’s quicksilver portrayal leaves one experiencing a torrent of emotions. She portrays the affirmative, down-to-earth, fiercely maternal Isabelle as if by second nature. With methodical calculation and matter-of-fact counter-arguments, Van Patten’s Joan extinguishes mom’s reality to justify what becomes unknowable except by faith. Her parents come to know that the tragedy of her calling is not of Joan’s choosing. Thus, they distrust and doubt her for it. How the ensemble and the director establish this arc of realization, doubt, torment, sorrow, and exaltation captivates.
As Close works through Isabelle’s evolution towards believing in her daughter, we experience her success at the court, then see her fall from grace into the malevolent hands of political enemies. She is acutely present throughout. With a nuanced set of emotions, each of Isabelle’s intentions sharpens with diamond-like clarity. Through Close’s investment in truth, we experience Isabelle’s painful resolution, affirmation, and final ascendance into autonomy and empowerment. It is almost as if with Joan’s death, Isabelle comes into her own. For those flames that destroyed her daughter’s body kindled a novel courage and love. It is a love which allows her to rage against the very God who gloriously martyred her daughter with an ignominious and unjust end. Thus, with passion Isabelle will shake the very heavens until Joan achieves an eternal justice and peace.
Mother of the Maid should not be missed. It must be seen for Glenn Close’s electrifying performance and for Grace Van Patten’s humanly realized Joan. As for the adroit staging and direction and the superb ensemble (Dermot Crowley, Andrew Hovelson, Kate Jennings Grant, Daniel Pearce, Olivia Gilliatt), all contribute to make this such a thrilling production.
The set design (John Lee Beatty), costume design (Jane Greenwood), lighting design (Lap Chi Chu), sound design & original music (Alexander Sovronsky), and sound design (Joanna Lynne Staub) aptly enhance the development of the action with stylized grace.
Mother of the Maid runs until 23 December. For tickets visit the Public Theater website.