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Mother of the Maid

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 17, 2018

Glenn Close and Grace Van Patten
Photo by Joan Marcus

No one will ever love you like your mom, not even if you are a saint-in-training. That's the perspective playwright Jane Anderson brings to the Joan of Arc saga in Mother of the Maid, opening tonight at the Public Theater with the indomitable Glenn Close giving a powerhouse performance in the title role.

Few saints have gotten the film and theater treatment as has Joan of Arc, here played by 22-year-old Grace Van Patten who stands on equal footing with Ms. Close. That's as it should be in a depiction of a relationship that is as intimate and as complicated as a mother-daughter bond generally is. We go into the theater pretty much understanding at least the basic outlines of Joan's life, but how much do we know about her family back on the farm in Domrémy?

As the play opens, we see a lone woman (Ms. Close) sitting on a stool and leaning over a basket filled with sheep's wool from which she is picking out burrs and twigs. She looks up and begins her narrative, in a somewhat formal third-person manner, as if dictating her autobiography or recalling from memory someone's else's published version of her history. She knows full well why we have come. It's always about her daughter, isn't it? But she is the one who knows Joan best, and she is determined to tell this story in her own fashion. "Isabelle Arc is a God-fearing woman," she begins. "She can neither read nor write, and her skirts smell ripe as a cheese."

Only when Isabelle is done with her introductory remarks is the play allowed to proceed. Joan enters, all sullen and moody like the teenage girl she is. The pair circle and snarl at one another for a while, with Isabelle patiently trying to get Joan to talk about what's been preoccupying her lately. Boys? The war? "Did someone get you pregnant?" The answer, when it comes, is hardly what Isabelle expects to hear, but you have to hand it to her for keeping calm and still as Joan explains, "I'm having holy visions, Ma."

What do you do after your daughter has confided such a thing to you? And then announces she is leaving to meet up with the Dauphin and, eventually, to lead the army in the war against England? That, of course, becomes the content of the rest of the play, which also brings in Joan's confused, angry, and frightened father, Jacques (Dermot Crowley), and her brother Pierre (Andrew Hovelson).

At first, Isabelle defers to the men and to the members of the Dauphin's court whose paths she later crosses. One in particular, a courtier played by Kate Jennings Grant, is sympathetic to Isabelle's cause but ultimately is powerless to help. Almost by default, Isabelle must find the strength within herself to defend, protect, and stand up for Joan, regardless of how she has been raised to conduct her life and whom she has to face down. In this, we can very much see that Isabelle and Joan are two peas in a pod. And even though we know how Joan's story must end, it is in watching Isabelle, in Glenn Close's towering, sometimes gut-wrenching performance, that we begin to understand the very human side to this oft-repeated tale.

It should be noted that the men and most of the other characters speak in modern speech cadences, and the anachronism-wary are hereby put on notice. But to set Isabelle apart, Glenn Close, under Matthew Penn's direction, gives her character a less naturalistic, more stylized delivery. At times this sticks out a little too much, especially when she resorts to talking about herself in the third person, but it is an effective way to signify that this is Isabelle's narrative, and it keeps her at the center of things. Mother of the Maid, after all, is not the stuff of myths and legends and George Bernard Shaw plays; it is about two remarkable women doing extraordinary things in 15th century France.

Mother of the Maid
Through December 23
Anspacher Theater at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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