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 directed by Matthew Penn, 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 throughout this intense drama spinning the human relationship between mother and daughter that created an icon and established Isabelle d’Arc as a woman of power in her own right.
Joan’s reckoning with destiny, touches off a veritable cataclysm of agony for Isabelle. Only after death does their conflict pivot and become rerouted in another direction. When Isabelle recovers from her daughter’s and her husband Jacques’ death, she gains her own identity, burnished by the flames of Joan’s immolation. It is then that she charges into history and writes her own exalted epilogue. With persistence and the strength that she demonstrated throughout her life, Isabelle memorializes her great love for her amazing Joannie and acquires justice at the hands of the Catholic Church.
Anderson reveals the mother/daughter conflict at the outset of the play. And Matthew Penn shepherds Glenn Close as Isabelle and Grace Van Patten as the maid of Orleans with directorial precision and energy. Anderson’s logic, economy, and adroitly crafted portrayals, elucidate the women’s disparate natures. Close and Van Patten are perfectly suited for their emotional jousting matches. As Isabelle attempts to interpret Joan’s behavior, we understand the dynamic 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. 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.”
The playwright ingeniously lays bare how Joan must persuade her parents to support her on the divine mission. Following the scripture’s admonition to “honor thy father and mother,” Joan allows them to beat her. She does not run away, nor resist their recriminations, but she affirms her identity as a servant of God. Joan assures them she will remain steadfast unto death, even if they kill her to forestall her crazy plans. Ironically, her parents give her a worse time accepting her divine unction than the “captain up at the castle,” who will escort her to the Dauphin (heir apparent). Because she becomes persuaded that Joan lives in God’s will, Isabelle finally acknowledges the beatings have no impact. Indeed, she may suffer God’s wrath if she tries to prevent Joan from living in her obedience to God’s plans.
This turning point defines the family’s enlightenment and support of Joan’s Godly purpose. Furthermore, Isabelle makes it clear to Joan that she recognizes and admires her piety and determination as an outgrowth of Isabelle’s fervent relationship to God. When Isabelle and Jacques give their permission, with humility, they acknowledge she is in God’s grace.
Anderson’s characterization and Penn’s measured direction of Close’s and Van Patten’s moment-to-moment acting keep us on the edge of our seats. Together they make the reality of her parents’ s acceptance of Joan’s mission miraculous. Anderson’s detailed revelations of her conflict with her parents actually heighten Joan of Arc’s humanity. And it is this that encourages us to understand that the potential for courage and strength is rooted in every human being. However, Joan’s affirmation and belief that her mission is divinely guided separates the rest of us from her. How her divinity is tested against her humanity, then, Anderson sets up in the second half of the play.
Joan’s greatness spins off at this juncture of having to deal with mom and dad. After she leaves her home and confronts the passion of God’s plans for France, her earthly persona gradually dissolves. Through various interactions with her mom both progress along an emotional and spiritual journey. We and Isabelle watch in awe how Joan becomes the Maid of Orleans. Yet, Jacques and Isabelle fear and doubt Joan’s every step. Reluctantly, after her successful battles against the British, they join her to celebrate the Dauphin’s coronation as Charles VII, King of France. Afterward, the situation worsens as the King’s enemies threaten. Jacques’ and Isabelle’s fears escalate, unabated by circumstances, faith or the King’s recognition of Joan’s favor with God.
We discover in the first segment that the actions her parents take to stop her, ironically strengthen 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 scourges, Joan’s mind and spirit become tempered to confront her enemy accusers. Brilliant, strengthened, resolved by faith, her answers to their entrapping questions during her trial astound them. As a result in historical archives, her trial and her death sentence appear unjustly ludicrous and political in the face of her innocence and agile mental acumen.
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 doubts 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.
Surmounting each plateau of the suspenseful emotional/spiritual journey, Isabelle shifts between the joy of seeing her daughter’s success and the pain of fearing her injury and torture by the British. When Joan is captured Isabelle embarks on her own path to greatness and individuality. Walking for miles over the rough country through the darkness, the difficult terrain and the fear of encounters with enemy soldiers, Isabelle finally arrives at Joan’s prison. And she insists with the guards that she be allowed to minister to her daughter. Though happy to receive her mother, Joan is unhappy to hear her protestations and argues with her, once more. For the last time Joan calls off her mother’s adjurations to recant and save herself from the fires.
This will be the last time the earthly Isabelle strives against the divinely inspired Joan who chooses death over hypocrisy. For her there is no turning. Close and Van Patten engage us in the arguments so that we empathize with both and even cheer on Close’s Isabelle in our hearts. However, we know the outcome and cheer on Joan for remaining courageous in the face of the coming brutality. Ultimately, this tension between immerses them in the feelings of love, sorrow, fear.
The rendering of the prickly mother-and-daughter relationship is the crux of the production. Anderson’s characterizations inspire us to see underneath the icon that the Catholic Church has deified. Yet, in the playwright’s reveal of these simple yet profound human souls, we learn of another miracle: that of human love ranged against the ineffable love and belief in God which cannot be quantified nor understood. Joan’s conscience is her own. Her mother can empathize and attempt to understand, but Joan must walk this walk of faith alone. And if Joan is to succeed, her mother, her father, her brother may sharpen her determination, but must ultimately get out of her way and let her go into the flames.
What parent cannot identify with the heartbreak of saying goodbye to their child and hello to the unrecognizable adult burgeoning before them? It is a bitter reckoning, more so when the parents must relent and let their beloved child whom they put their hopes in, fulfill these hopes in death. That Isabelle did not argue her daughter’s insanity before the authorities speaks to Anderson’s adroit characterization. For at this point, Close’s Isabelle though desperate, turns to God for His help, knowing it may be to no avail. It is apparent to us that she doubts and believes Joan will die. We intuit that Isabelle senses that Joan, fatally Christ-like, will be martyred for France. Whether divinely willed or not, Isabelle is out of it. This is between God and Joan. And France.
The scenes ground the miraculous past, present, and future trenchantly in logic. Eagerly, we throw ourselves into this soul 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 as they fiercely breathe life into a legend we find hard to fathom. Yet because of Anderson’s craft and superb rationale, we are closer to that legend because we see Joan from Isabelle’s perspective. She is her daughter, regardless of how divine.
Isabelle evolves as a mother mentored by Joan’s calling. Indeed, at the court ,and visiting Joan in prison, she becomes her handmaiden. While Close inhabits this “mother for all time,” Van Patten wears Joan’s anointing and humanity credibly. Through their profound, enlightened and thought-provoking portrayals, we understand the complexity of their relationship and the powerful impact of their love for one another. Isabelle demonstrates great faith, courage, and humility in navigating the pretensions of the royal court. And we become immersed in her torment as she assists Joan through the sham trial and pronouncement of the fearful death sentence. The second act is particularly chilling and suspenseful, driven by Isabelle’s urgency.
Close’s quicksilver acting 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 Joan’s calling is not of her choosing. Thus, they distrust and doubt her for it, not able to understand her dense faith. How the ensemble and the director establish this arc of realization, doubt, torment, sorrow, and exaltation is breathtaking.
As Close works through Isabelle’s evolution toward believing in her daughter, we experience Joan’s affirmation of all she believes in her successes at the court. These are snatched away when she falls from grace into the malevolent hands of political enemies. Both Van Patten and Close are acutely present throughout. With nuanced emotions, each of Isabelle’s intentions sharpens with clarity as the women strike like flint against one another.
By the conclusion, it is because of Close’s investment in truth that we experience Isabelle’s painful resolution, affirmation, and final ascendance into autonomy and empowerment. With Joan’s death, Isabelle comes into her own. The flames that destroyed her daughter’s body kindle a renewed and even greater courage and love in Isabell. 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 through an eternal justice, a public vindication and glorification.
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 a must-see.
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.