As Isabelle Arc, Glenn Close is a no-nonsense, straight-talking, country woman. She speaks to us from France in the early 1400s amid the Hundred Years War in Jane Anderson’s play Mother of the Maid, now running at the Public Theater. This is Isabelle’s story: the subtitle of the play is “the sorry tale of Joan of Arc as seen through the eyes of her mum.” And as a human tale of love, adoration and the costs of commitment and passion, it’s hardly a sorry one. It’s a story so human, it’s divine.
Close is on stage for nearly every moment, rooting our focus and solemnly embracing the action. Her Isabelle might be a Trump voter if she lived today, but it’s more probable she wouldn’t have voted at all. Civilian and religious politics are far outside her peasant world of family, sheep and a moderately successful rural life. Close’s careful performance choices as the mother of a child who dreams of leading an army will break your heart: a touch on a wounded wrist; a march for days across muddy roads.
Isabelle and her husband Jacques (stolid Dermot Crowley) are certainly beginning to worry about their headstrong daughter, Joan (earnest, powerful, youthful Grace Van Patten), who resists romance and marriage and claims that St. Catherine is sending her messages from God to drive the English from France. Joan’s brother, Pierre (charming Andrew Hovelson), tussles with her like most siblings, but then he becomes one of her loyal soldiers. This is a Joan, in other words, not yet a saint but not yet ready for martyrdom. We meet Joan after she commits to her journey: we can watch her enjoy the pleasures of court life and we can see her suffer when she’s imprisoned, all before she’s burned for daring to be different.
Isabelle, meanwhile, wants only to ensure her daughter’s future. Hers is a hopeful, loving soul; the mother of a proud, righteous, sturdy, adolescent girl. As Anderson dramatizes it, this is a family that fights, loves and cries potently and exquisitely.
Anderson, of course, also her work cut out for her as she explores new dimensions of a story that playwrights from Shakespeare to Shaw have previously blessed with their words and their resonance. For those writers, priests and politicians mostly occupied center stage, charged with debating the rights of countries and the righteousness of Joan, who maintains resolutely throughout that St. Catherine did communicate the will of God. The playwright, however, relegates those debates to an unseen offstage world; this is play about Joan of Arc that puts Joan of Arc, for once, at the true center of the action — her mother reliably nearby. We see Joan proclaim her plan to visit the Dauphin; we see Isabelle converse with members of the court and her daughter’s jailers. Cleverly, Anderson frames the story with frequent direct address. More than minimizing political proclamations, this allows Joan’s family to tell us, person to person, of their joys, of their fears. In Isabelle’s case, how does it feel to be mother of a peasant girl who inspired a nation?
Physically, the play is also never strays far from John Lee Beatty’s country bar set. Simple inserts transport us to a palace room or to a prison cell, but soon enough we’re back at the barn. Lap Chi Chu’s exquisite lighting, from battle explosions through those barn slats to streaming sunlight to darkness framing a solitary beam of light, perfectly augments the worlds of the script. Costumer Jane Greenwood captures the rough-hewn country garb, armor, and the costumes of ladies and gentlemen of the court with equal aplomb. The wigs by Tom Watson, from braided headdresses to Joan’s familiar bob, are exquisite.
Matthew Penn’s staging assures each actor a star turn within a magnificent ensemble. Van Patten never doubts Joan’s mission, yet, as a teenager might, she fears the pain of the flames that will consume her character. Crowley’s portrait of a father is brutal but loving. Kate Jennings Grant, as the Lady of the Court, delights in her character’s care toward Isabelle; in the security of her character’s class, her performance exudes amiable cluelessness.
Unlike Shaw’s Joan, which so memorably deals with the maneuverings of church and state, Anderson sees Joan’s journey through the world from the one pair of eyes that most of us never considered. Indeed, Close’s performance seems to ask two questions: “How dare my child consider this act?”, and “How am I to deal with her?” While informed by historical research, Mother of the Maid is redolent with human-scale drama. Consider Isabelle’s first lines:
Isabelle Arc is a God-fearing woman. She can neither read nor write, and her skirts smell ripe as a cheese.
From that quiet moment — delivered by a marvelous actress at the top of her game playing the ordinary mother of an extraordinary child — we are with her. Anderson succeeds in shaking off the memory of the Joans of yore, and gifts us one who is both earthy and real, mothered by a woman who is just as extraordinary as her child.