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Mother of the Maid

With all the horrible, hateful things been going on, who's to blame us? It's just a matter of chasing those thoughts out of your head, just sweep them out of your head. Whoosh, like sweeping out the floor. — Isabelle, trying to talk her 19-year-old daughter "Joanie" from letting her visions of St. Catherine and the Saint's telling her that she must lead the French Army to freedom from England go to her head. .
Kate Jennings Grant and Glenn Close
Note the order of "mother" and "maid" in the title of Jane Anderson's Mother of the Maid now in its New York premiere at the Public Theater. Anderson has given the much told story of the 15th Century peasant girl's tragic story a new twist by turning it into a family drama with the focus on the legendary Joan's mother, Isabelle Arc.

The world premiere I saw at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox (my review), had company founder and superb thespian Tina Packer to play Joan's mum. However that production was structured to have Saint Catherine, the martyred virgin who propelled young Joan to legendary fame, actually play a major role, as the narrator — a quite contemporary and amusing one at that. But while that narrator lightened the unavoidably dark finale, she really was more distracting than necessary— especially, since the dialogue throughout has its own decidedly "now" flavor.

Apparently the playwright and director Matthew Penn also thought Mother of the Maid would work better without a live Saint Catherine. The current production simply lets Isabelle, act as her own narrator as an explanatory bit of text is needed. This eliminates the sense that the main roles were split between live Saint Catherine and Isabelle. Having Isabelle temporarily narrate rather than act also works well for the final appearances of Joan's father and brother.

This family drama approach may sound as if it has been over-popularized and modernized to engender a soapopera-ish TV spin-off. And at times the push to make these characters sound as if they were our contemporaries. However, Anderson is too adept at finding ways to illuminate extraordinary aspects of ordinary women's lives. And so, the mother she's chosen to retell the Joan of Arc story has a grandness that resists dumbing down.

Anderson and Penn are lucky to have the formidable Glenn Close to now play the Mother. And Close is not just the box office magnet here, but magnificent. Her Isabelle is universal, time transcending woman. She's a mother desperate to keep her daughter safe from what she sees as wild and impractical actions. . . a mother who ends up desperate to save her. . .a mother at her frightened child's side when the inevitable end is upon her. . .and, ultimately tenaciously empowering herself to fight for her daughter's premature death not to be in vain, but to earn her a place among saints and in the history books.

The focus on Joan's family doesn't just give the well known story a new twist but creates an authentic picture of life in the 15th century. Though uneducated, the Arcs actually owned their farm and if people had been identified as upper, middle or lower class back then, they would have been considered middle class, with middle class social values and ambitions.

The play's spotlight on Joan's family (selectively fact based) adds two other expertly played family members: Joan's brother Pierre (Andrew Hovelson) and her father Jacques (Dermot Crowley). Crowley's Jacques is one of the play's prime assets. , Unlike Joan and her mother, this tough love paterfamiias has the kind of common sense smarts to suspect war-torn France's powerful leaders of being false and hypocritical, and foresees that their willingness to take Joan's visions seriously will doom her. Crowley manages to let the love for "his girl" to shine through gruff exterior — and during his dagger-to-the-heart scene near the play's end burst into blazing agony.

No matter how different the lens through which a playwright views Joan of Arc's story, however, there's no way to tell it without a "Maid." And Grace Van Patten's Joan is a Maid with whom it's easy to identify. She rebels at the idea of getting married or becoming a nun— the only opportunities available to women of that era and society. She's scared but also uplifted and intrigued by the martyred St. Catherine's vision of her as the victorious leader of the French Army. The Saint's call to glory wins over her mother's advice and even her father's beating and imprisoning her. The farm girl becomes a celebrity.

Van Patten is at her best in the second act. That's when she and Close share the triple hanky scene, in which the proud warrior is once again a needy child being tenderly prepared for her famous fiery end by her mother.

Several other characters broaden the Arc family's story as an effective picture of people's lives and attitudes in all areas of this era. Kate Jennings Grant convincingly brings out the complexities of the elegant noblewoman listed in the program only as Lady of the Court. Grant's Lay displays genuine compassion for Isabelle when she arrives exhausted and dirty from walking 300 miles to see Joan as she is preparing for her soldierly mission. But the Lady's inadequacy in helping Isabelle to get the Dauphin to pay the ransom demanded by the British for the captured Joan, typifies the weakness of seemingly powerful people, especially women.

Like the inadequate response to Joan's situation that Grant represents, the church's failure is embodied by Daniel Pearce as the Arcs' opportunistic priest, Father Gilbert. Pearce also multi tasks as a court scribe who serves as a stand-in for the all too common still much in evidence citizen who remains silent and compliant in the face of call-to-action events.

In addition to the structural and cast changes of this New York premiere, director Penn has also enlisted a stellar design team to create a more elaborately staged production. John Lee Beatty scenery shifts fluidly back and forth between the woodsy Arc home and the high gloss palace scenes. It's all atmospherically punctuated by Lap Chi Chu's lighting and Alexander Sovronsky and Joanna Lynne Staub sound design. Jane Greenwood's costumes add to the feeling that we're watching the figures of a giant master painting step out of its frame.

The playwright's deliberately plain folks choice of the Mother rather than the iconic Maid as her protagonist, does call for a powerhouse, renowned actress. With Tina Packer in the Berkshires and now Glenn Close in New York, Anderson has struck gold twice. Definitely a display of bravura acting you won't want to miss.

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Mother of the Maid by Jane Anderson
Directed by Matthew Penn
Cast: Glenn Close as Isabelle Arc, Dermot Crowley as Jacques Arc, Olivia Gillatt as Monique (a servant), Kate Jennings Grant as Lady of the Court, Andrew Hovelson as Pierre Arc, Daniel Pearce as Father Gilbert, Grace Van Patten as Joan
Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design:Jane Greenwood
Lighting Design: Lap Chi Chu
Sound Design: Alexander Sovronsky & Joanna Lynne Staub
Original Music:Alexander Sovronsky
Hair and Wig Design:Tom Watson
Stage Manager: James Latus
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including inermission
Public's Anspacher Theater
From 9/25/18; opening 10/17/18; closing 12/23/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 10/14/18 press preview

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