Mother of the Maid, by Jane Anderson. Directed by Matthew Penn. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Even the dungball seemed gorgeous to me."
Bridget Saracino and Tina Packer; photo: Enrico Spada
The story of Joan of Arc is not a new tale for the stage. Jean Anouilh's "The Lark" is one of the best along with Arthur Honneger's stage cantata, "Joan of Arc at the Stake." Both have been straight-on retellings of the known tale of the Maid of Orleans, her triumphs and the tragedy of her ending as a victim of her enemies. There is little left to be told. Playwright Jane Anderson has found a new way to tell the story, leaving Joan out of most of it and showing instead the direct result of the female soldier's rise to fame on her immediate family.
Other playwright's have done the same thing with other human tales. The concept is not that revolutionary. Judith Anderson's (no relation to this playwright I believe) hit 1939 play "Family Portrait" about Jesus's mother and the family she had after her most famous son comes to mind. It is said that Anderson followed her forebears by giving us the story from Joan's mother's point of view but that is not quite accurate. While Isabelle Arc's reactions are the centerpiece of this play it is actually told from the perspective of long-dead Ste. Catherine, the principal voice behind the enticing of Joan away from farm and family to save her country. It is the Saint herself who appears to Joan, to her mother and to us, who tells the story from her point of view and who makes it as personal a monologue as could be imagined. She is a modern woman, speaking to her audience of things we all understand and know and in our own language. She compares Joan to women of today. She directs the play from within its narrow confines. This is Saint Catherine of Alexandria's story as only she can relate it.
Bridget Saracino plays Catherine as though the martyr had been born in 1973 instead of 300ad. She swaggers, she gets down with the news, she cites parallels with modern culture as though she had experienced these things herself. She tells about Joan and her devotion the way a modern day mistress would speak about her lover. Saracino tosses off her lines as though the narrative was of passing interest. There is something indelicately endearing about her method. She manipulates her period costume the way a modern dancer would move within her burnoose. It is probably this trait, this totally contemporary sensibility that makes Saracino's Catherine so accessible to us. We can easily understand Joan's ease with her because we are at ease with her. It is also why the plot turn that Catherine's departure from the scene provides seems so practical and right. Saracino is the center of everyone's attention in this play as her Catherine gives them the space to be seen and heard center stage.
Central to this edition of the legend of Joan is her mother played by Tina Packer. Isabelle is a conflicted woman whose heart is constantly worn on her sleeve as she battles her children, her husband and a societal race in which she is never able to achieve the top rung of the ladder no matter how many events bring her into focus. She is left alone, as Catherine shows us, with no one to turn to for aid or defense as she leads her own attack on the Pope and Rome in an effort to keep her daughter's efforts seen in the best light. Packer is moving in this role as she has not been in a long time. Isabelle is a role for which she was seemingly destined. There is an honesty in her acting that is not unique in her history but is certainly new for new audiences that will meet her in this role. At one point early in the second act the actress seemed to falter, to stumble over lines and her place on the stage, but in reality she was reassessing a moment, finding it anew and giving it a reality that was truly enthralling. Her performance in this play is nothing short of brilliant.
Nigel Gore plays her husband Jacques. He has the more difficult job of playing a man who is angry and bitter and unpleasant and who must still find his humanity by the end of the play. Jacques cannot abide his life, his children's lives, his wife's lifelong needs. At the end of Catherine's rendition of the story he is transformed into the father he could never be when a father was needed. His final monologue was touching and a central part of the ten-minute weep that the author and director have inflicted upon the audience.
Anne Troup plays Joan as an aggressive and challenged individual who cannot be satisfied in a usual role in her time and place. She is uniquely American as presented here, a child of the 1960s who accepts as her own the world that must be set aright. For Ste. Catherine as narrator Joan is the essence of the late 20th century, bold, wearing men's clothing with ease, taking on herself the ways of the world not normally open to a woman. She is rebellion and she is beauty personified. Troup has made this Joan into someone everyone can identify with as she does what her mother cannot do: leave her own kind and become the celebrity that everyone wants to know until that position becomes too dangerous to approach. Troup is most wonderful at the end of the play when her return to childhood, to dependence upon an indulgent mother, brings her into the very vulnerable place that children often find themselves abandoned in.
Jason Asprey plays the Catholic priest whose understanding of things is dependent upon prevailing winds. He plays Father Gilbert with internal conviction that could only be created by an indulgent saint and so is Catherine's version of the middle-ages priest. He is as unreal in all situations as he could possibly be and Asprey plays this faithfully. His work in two other roles, most notably the scribe who takes down Joan's letters and later her mother's, is excellent.
Equally good as Pierre, Joan's brother, is Nathaniel Kent. He gets boyishness just right and as he grows into emotional maturity he gets that right also. Of all the characters in this play Pierre seems to be the only one to escape Ste. Catherine's directorial recreation; he seems to remain the one true character, faithful to the possibilities open to him.
The cast is rounded out by a woman of the Court of King Charles, played by Elizabeth Aspenlieder. I do believe that the views of Ste. Catherine on noblewomen are very clear in this role and Aspenlieder has the ability to play all sides of this woman including her compassion, her mother love, her honest friendship and her false modesty brilliantly. In Catherine's story this woman represents everything that Isobelle is not and could never be and everything Joan is not and would not want to be. She is the other side of the coin and in Aspenlieder's hands is the brightly polished side, the vaguely relatable side of the world that these women inhabit. Her performance is the icing on this cake of a play, almost too sweet as she becomes an acolyte, almost too gooey as she speaks of her children's intentions to be helpful. Without this character the play would have no chance to show Isobelle's best side and Joan's worst.
Govane Lohbauer's costumes are masterful and James W. Bilknoski's lighting provides the right moods at the right times. Patrick Brennan's set is too beige and tentlike. Alexander Sovronsky's music provides fine settings for the moments it amplifies. Matthew Penn has directed this play for the illumination that the story throws on our own lives in our own time. His most modern saint and her least modern story combine in his vision of the play into a milkshake of reality both tasty and fluid. Whether it was the playwright's intention or not, "Mother of the Maid" is about that woman's need to find her daughter's relationship with a dead saint and to replicate it in her own fashion. All concentration is on the saint herself, her choices, her use of living people and her desertion of those whose faithful devotion to her advice leaves them imperiled. Penn uses his actresses to keep that focus where he sees it, on the saint.
Prepare yourself for a ten minute weep at the end of this fine play. You won't be able to stop the flow of tears even though you came into the theater knowing the end of the story and fully prepared not to be moved. Penn's direction of this company leaves no hope for happiness until the final moments and those are the mother's alone. Out of the way, Catherine, out of the way, Joan. It's Mama's turn.
Nathaniel Kent and Anne Troup as Pierre and Joan Arc; photo: Enrico Spada
Jason Asprey as Father Gilbert; photo: Enrico Spada
Elizabeth Aspenlieder and Tina Packer; photo: Enrico Spada
Mother of the Maid plays through September 6 at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre on the Shakespeare and Company campus located at 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-637-3353 or go on line at shakespeare.org.