The first time we see her recoiling from her mom doing it. But the last time, Joan of Arc really does need a hug from her mom, and luckily for her in this instance the fiercely protective Glenn Close is that mom.
What a mother’s love means, and what use it can have when the daughter involved is a sanctified 15th century French heroine and Catholic martyr, is the central question of Mother of the Maid, a witty and piercing play written by Jane Anderson and directed by Matthew Penn which opens tonight at New York City’s Public Theater.
This production is the most impressive and perceptive of the brace of underpar Joan of Arc-themed theatre pieces: from the extremely loud rock musical, Into the Fire, to the stately and dull Broadway revival of Shaw's Saint Joan earlier this year.
Anderson, who wrote the screenplay of The Wife that Close recently starred in, perfectly melds the comedy and drama of making the historical and mythic domestic and earthy.
Mother of the Maid asks what it must have been like to have been related to Joan, and particularly what it must have been like to have been her mother. “The sorry tale of Joan of Arc as seen through the eyes of her mum,” is the play’s winkingly wry sub-title.
We first meet mother and daughter, with buckets of wool, on the family's farm; this is what Isabelle taught her daughter to do. Close is initially a watchful, ruddy-faced rural mother. She imagines a life of heterosexual contentment and wifely duty for her daughter, who is dismissive and more focused on the Hundred Years’ War between the French and English.
And indeed, when Joan (a tetchy, willful Grace van Patten) relates that she can hear the voice of St. Catherine, Close conveys Isabelle’s confusion, fury, and hurt. When Joan describes the orgasmic visitations she receives, Close furrows her brow and asks her daughter if she’s spoken to the local priest. “Don’t get high-handed with me, Girlie. I’ve been praying a lot longer than you have,” Isabelle admonishes Joan.
Joan's father Jacques (Dermot Crowley) is just as confused and beats her. Her brother Pierre (Andrew Hovelson) sneers at her. When Joan leaves to meet her destiny as a leader of an army, her mother says her bound breasts will not be able to produce milk. But still, the good mom packs her daughter provisions, including some plums that will take a day or two to ripen.
As the reality creeps up that Joan has secured the trust and confidence of the Dauphin, so the family changes. They have no choice. Indeed, Isabelle is kept waiting by her daughter for hours when she visits her at court for the first time.
John Lee Beatty’s set is a clever, rotating box: flipping from the basic Arc homestead to the rich jewel colors, and tables laden with food, of the royal court.
Kate Jennings Grant plays a lady of the court with a blithe and brilliant comic timing. She is also warm and accepting of Isabelle, even if—while recognizing the importance of Isabelle in Joan’s life—she fails to see when her ministrations may be patronizing.
Close has to to sharply remind Grant's extravagantly gowned character that Joan’s family are not peasants, just hard workers. They do not to be patronized or condescended to. The lady of the court says she is in awe of Isabelle, having raised someone like Joan; Isabelle drily notes in response that everyone in their village thought Joan was strange.
Who does her newly elevated daughter think she is, Isabelle huffs. She will sort her out. (The audience cheers the prospect.)
Close’s Isabelle shows herself to be nobody’s fool; and the most cheer-worthy moments showcase Isabelle’s steel rather than her concern if Joan is eating properly. Isabelle balances a mother’s capacity to protect and scold with the growing recognition of her daughter’s stature and fame. Throughout, Isabelle cannot bear the mention of St. Catherine’s name, “that so-and-so saint.”
Close plays Isabelle with a focused fierceness. With Joan elevated to inspiring military leader, she still does not accept that St. Catherine can be her daughter’s only guide. She insists her daughter remember where, and who, she came from.
However, after living in relative penury, Isabelle is also taken with the accoutrements of regal privilege. First, she has her dirty and tired feet washed. Then we watch Close’s wonderstruck face as Isabelle drinks from a glass, not a cup, for the first time at the Dauphin’s Reims palace; also, see her joy at the delicious mead made with honey from the royal hives.
Joan transforms her family’s lives, but Isabelle stays absolutely herself. (None of the history is explained in the play. You are assumed to know it all. It would be better made more explicit.) When Joan’s fortunes change and she is captured, Isabelle and Pierre fight over his intransigence as a parent and her piety, both angrily blaming the other for their daughter’s plight.
Close powerfully shows how Isabelle stayed true to her keenly held responsibilities as a mother when Joan is jailed, with Isabelle desperate she renounce St. Catherine for her own salvation (no shakes there) and later she washes and holds Joan close as Joan prepares to be burnt to death at the stake.
There Isabelle does the sweetest thing, and says to Joan that Isabelle's nemesis, St. Catherine, has visited to Isabelle to reassure her that Joan will feel no pain.
This set of scenes are raw and beautifully played by both Close and Van Patten, as is the final scene where Close in spotlight reveals to us how Isabelle Arc “faced a tribunal of clergy, three rows of them in robes black as crows,” to restore Joan’s name and honor after her death.
Her mother has become the warrior now, guided by the spirit of her daughter, not St. Catherine.
When Isabelle recalls the bees “digging into the blossoms” back on the family’s farm, it is a final insistence of her daughter’s goodness, her sweetness; the daughter Joan she knew and held so close rather than the Joan of Arc lionized in history.
Mother of the Maid is at the Public Theater (Anspacher Theater) until Dec. 23.