The play sticks closely to the known facts while attempting to put a human face on the Arc family. The first act like the coda that ends the play is narrated by Isabelle (Close) in the third person to suggest that she is an unlettered person. Interrogating her daughter Joan as to why she had not been herself lately, she is told about Joan’s visitations from St. Catherine. Initially skeptical, Isabelle comes to believe that something unusual has happened to her daughter. Though her farmer husband Jacques tries to beat Joan into submission, both must fall into line when first the village priest and then a military escort show up. Joan’s no-nonsense older brother Pierre goes along to keep an eye on her.
Isabelle walks the 300 miles to see her daughter at the castle of Chinon before Joan goes on her legendary journey at the head of an army to rid the French of the English soldiers and get the Dauphin Charles crowned king. At Chinon, Isabelle humbly holds her own with the compassionate Lady of the Court who sees to her needs and who appears to be charmed by her. Next we meet up with Isabelle and Jacques who have been invited to the Dauphin’s coronation in Reims where they are awed by the luxurious way they are treated.
They are back home on their farm in Domrémy when Pierre on leave from the army relates how Joan was captured and is awaiting trial by the English. Visiting Joan in her cell, Isabelle comforts her that all will be well. When things go bad, Isabelle returns to court to find that they have lost interest in her and will not ransom her daughter. The play eschews the well documented trial (for which the transcript still exists) but dramatizes Isabelle’s last visit to Joan in her cell before her burning. Finally, Isabelle relates the rest of her life after the deaths of both her daughter and her husband as well as her campaigning to get Joan’s conviction for heresy overturned.
Close’s Isabelle is a warm, hard-working, God-fearing peasant woman who though illiterate has a good deal of street-smarts and benevolence. She delineates Isabelle’s path from skepticism to compassion, to wonder, to faith, to disillusionment, and ultimately anger. She makes Isabelle Arc a three dimensional though conventional woman, a very sympathetic and understanding one. Since the story of the Maid is so well known, the play, however, offers few or no surprises other than showing us the reaction to Joan’s rise and fall by her family of which little is likely known.
While Matthew Penn’s direction is unobtrusive and realistic, the other actors can’t do a great deal with roles which are rather generic: ignorant farmer father, sophisticated brother, efficient local priest, high born lady of the court, professional scribe. As Joan, Grace Van Patten who is about the same age the Maid was at the time of the story is rather callow, querulous and irritable in the manner of teenagers who don’t immediately get what they want. As her brother Pierre, Andrew Hovelson is patient and gentle with his old-fashioned and uneducated parents. As Joan’s patriarchal father Jacques, Dermot Crowley is amusing as a man who thinks he had the world figured out. Kelley Curran (replacing the originally announced Kate Jennings Grant) is a model of balanced tolerance as she deals with a woman from a class she has never known before. Daniel Pearce is rather bland as both Father Gilbert of Domrémy and the court scribe who interacts with Isabelle when she wants to write to the king to gain a ransom for her daughter.
John Lee Beatty’s scenery is mostly minimalistic except for the lavish scenes at court. His design for the Arc house is rather empty, possibly to show how little they own. However, Jane Greenwood does wonders with the 15th century costumes, putting the peasants in varied solid color tunics which contrast with the courtiers in their richly woven gowns in bright colors. Lap Chi Chu’s lighting is suitable without offering any particularly memorable moments. Tom Watson is responsible for the varied hair and wig designs representing women of various social and economic classes.
Jane Anderson’s Mother of the Maid would probably not be very compelling without Glenn Close’s Isabelle Arc as the play itself is following the dots in filling in the little that is known with mostly common historic and unsurprising details. (One exception is after Isabelle has seen the unicorn tapestries at the palace, she naively asks if there were any of the animals to be seen.) However, with Close who gives a constrained and moving performance the play becomes something else: a persuasive portrait of a mother and wife who has an awakening to the ways of the world based on what happens to her daughter.
Mother of the Maid (through December 23, 2018)
The Public Theater
Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, all 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.Publictheater.org
Running time: two hours and five minutes with one intermission