Nevertheless, she persists, that maid of Orleans, and by the end of the Manhattan Theatre Club’s attractive, not flawless, Broadway revival of Shaw’s Saint Joan, starring the endearing Condola Rashad, resistance is mostly futile.
Directed by Daniel Sullivan with an easy flow that appears to modernize the 1923 play and keep all that Shavian verbiage moving at a smart clip, Saint Joan would seem an ideal resurrection for an era of #MeToo and the rejection of binary gender cages, but this Joan doesn’t quite drive its sword into that ground as forcefully as you might hope.
Instead, Sullivan and Rashad hit harder on the play’s lament over society’s treatment of its Saints, a sympathy that, in theory at least, would extend to, say, a Saint John. Rashad – a Tony nominee for last year’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 and star of TV’s Billions – plays Joan with a guilelessness that none but the most bloodthirsty Inquisitor could withstand, and her acceptance by male battlefield comrades and even local church officials seems almost too effortless.
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Of course, that’s in large part to Rashad herself, a performer so appealing that even the shakier early scenes – with young Joan’s naivete approaching Being There levels – fade quickly as her performance takes on a tougher, more resolute mien. Even then, though, Rashad doesn’t evoke even so much anger as we’re likely to see on MSNBC tonight. Ok, that’s an exaggeration, and hers is certainly a defendable choice – Rashad’s Joan (and Shaw’s for that matter) seems to have the peace of confidence. Still, I wouldn’t have minded a bit more fury before the fire.
Mostly playing out on a smallish center portion of Scott Pask’s gorgeous set – the stage is framed by golden rows suggesting the pipes of a grand cathedral organ – the production surrounds the beguiling Rashad with a cast strong enough to hold its own (no small thing). As Church fathers, the ever reliable John Glover and Walter Bobbie make judges both stern yet unfailingly reasonable – well, for 15th Century witch-burning figureheads of patriarchal fanaticism, anyway. Patrick Page makes for a most convincing Inquisitor, even when pleading his case about the saving grace of a good pyre.
A bigger surprise is Jack Davenport, perhaps best known to American audiences for his role on TV’s Smash. Making his Broadway debut (his Playbill bio reads “While he understands he’s a bit long in the tooth to be making any sort of debut, he’s nonetheless thrilled”), Davenport makes full use of his good looks and insouciant magnetism as the ruthless Warwick, the wily defender of England’s peerage system for whom Joan represents an existential threat. He probably wouldn’t light the spark beneath a woman’s feet, but he’d happily hand out the matchbooks.
Less effective are Adam Chanler-Berat (Next to Normal) and Daniel Sunjata (Rescue Me) as, respectively, the bratty childlike lump of a Dauphin and Joan’s loyal but clear-eyed comrade in arms. Both overplay their defining traits by half, with Sunjata employing the square jaws and sunset stare of a Disney prince.
All is forgiven onstage (and for the most part, off) by the long play’s final scene, when Shaw reassembles even his dead characters 25 years after Joan’s burning, in a playful, ghosty, dreamy encounter of reconciliation (again, for the most part) that will reassure you of Shaw’s place in Tony Kushner’s imagination. I’d sooner believe that angels exist in America than capital-S Saints do on earth, or that obeying head voices to take up arms leads anywhere good. But if I was going to be swayed, Rashad, Sullivan and this Saint Joan might be the ones to do it.
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