So maybe Joan of Arc plays second fiddle to few saints in history, but on stage even she’s no match for Glenn Close. As the title character in Mother of the Maid, Jane Anderson’s eccentric and startlingly play opening tonight Off Broadway at the Public Theater, Close takes on history and wins.
Mother of the Maid reunites the actress, as good here as you’ve seen her, with Anderson (the two most recently collaborated on feature film The Wife) and Damages director Matthew Penn. The three play off one another to great effect – Close’s regal demeanor an ironic counterpoint to Penn’s stark staging and Anderson’s near-comic workaday dialogue.
How workaday? “What do I need fuggin’ nuns for?” asks, at one point, Joan of Arc – Joanie to her family. Played (and played very well) by Grace Van Patten (The Meyerowitz Stories), this young saint in the making has the swagger, sneer and “Horses” haircut of a young Patti Smith. Joanie’s a punk with saintly vision, or maybe the other way around. Either way, G.B. Shaw wouldn’t recognize her.
In broad terms, Anderson (The Baby Dance, Defying Gravity, TV’s Olive Kitteridge) stays fairly close to the Joan plot we know: Young peasant girl hears voices, has visions, teams up with the French Dauphin to battle the British, cuts her hair, puts on pants and gets burned at the stake for being a cross-dressing heretic. As I say, broad terms.
And while Mother of the Maid doesn’t give short shrift to the young martyr, the focus and perspective belong to the older one: Isabelle Arc, the uneducated but fiercely smart woman who watches, at first in confusion, then awe, terror and finally unspeakable grief as her beloved daughter gives herself to God, St. Catherine and the stake.
“I’m having holy visions, Ma,” says Joanie with an accent somewhere between Brooklyn and Jersey. “Saint Catherine been appearing to me.”
“Oh,” replies Isabelle. “She’s a lovely saint. That’s lovely, Joanie. How long has this been going on?”
At times, Anderson, Penn and the really fine cast seem to be aiming for a Grapes of Wrath feel – the 1940 movie, specifically, with Close doing Jane Darwell’s Ma Joad to Van Patten’s Tom, their speech patterns more mid-century Hollywood tough than 15th Century Domrémy. Joan’s brother and second-rate guardian Pierre (Andrew Hovelson) could take a spot among the old Bowery Boys.
Just as any and all anachronisms are fully intentional (a well-heeled, condescending Lady of the Court fawns that Isabelle is “faaabulous!”), so too are the teenage-blues archetypes, as young Joanie pouts, sasses and broods her way to impossible danger, breaking her mom’s heart along the way, in millions of little pieces.
And that’s when Mother of the Maid unleashes its full power. After all the stylized wisecracking and winking, Anderson’s tale hits, when it hits, hard. The playwright gives us the terror, not just the idealism, with the cell-bound Joan wailing to her visiting, helpless mother, “Oh God, it’ll hurt.”
Maybe helpless isn’t the right word. Anderson affords Joan one tiny sliver of last-minute grace, provided not by God or St. Catherine but by her mother, as strong as any army.