When you think of Joan of Arc, a singular, brave girl with short-hair and armor comes to mind. She was a Catholic martyr who was burned at the stake and died alone. Jane Anderson’s play Mother of the Maid reconfigures the frame around Joan’s story, reminding the audience that she had a father, a brother and a mother. This play wants us to know they were important too.
In a sparse but clean room in Medieval France, Isabelle Arc, played by Glenn Close explains who Isabelle was. Even coming from Close, this third-person narration is a little clumsy. It prevents the viewer from connecting directly to the setting. After this clunkiness, the play recovers and soars to heavenly heights.
Close’s Isabelle might start off like the simple kind of woman usually relegated to a third-string story or an archetype, but in Anderson’s script Isabelle is centered. She is dressed like a woman who was dragged off an American farm in the 19th or 20th century and pulled onstage—simple, practical clothes, mud on her skirts.
At first, Isabelle is the skeptical mother who just wants things to stay as they are. But when Joan (Grace Van Patten) tells her “ma” about her holy visions and her mission, Isabelle is activated. She becomes a protective force of nature. “Let me call up St. Catherine!” Isabelle says, telling Joan that she’ll pray to St. Catherine to tell her to stop this madness.
Van Patten plays Joan as a tomboy with a swagger. She is ready to lead an army and has no interest in being a wife. Her portrayal is earnest. We believe this girl thinks her visions are real even when her parents don’t. She describes the sharpness of the world when St. Catherine visits her in the fields—the sheep’s chewing is amplified.
When this confidence and arrogance is later taken away in the cells of the English, Van Patten’s Joan turns into a little girl again. This transformation is so shocking and heartbreaking sniffles could be heard throughout the audience.
Her father, Jacques remains a constant non-believer and foreshadows that Joan’s holy mission will end in disaster. Sometimes, his predictions are a bit too on the nose—especially assuming that the Dauphin would abandon Joan while she and her brother, Pierre (Andrew Hovelson), strut around the palace in Paris in new armor.
The costumes shift from threadbare, worn and stained to glamorous. It’s escalates slowly as Joan becomes the Dauphin’s close confidant. The detail in the clothing, by Jane Greenwood, and the set, designed by John Lee Beatty, adds a lot of historical credibility to the show. Isabelle is astounded by the fine drinking glasses the palace has. She had never used an actual glass before, which is a scene Close definitely has fun with as an actress.
The most awe-inspiring set is revealed after Isabelle walked 300 miles to Paris to see her daughter (which surely should get her a mother-of-the-year award). Upon her arrival, she demands to see her daughter who makes her mother wait until after Joan talks to St. Catherine. Joan descends a back-lit staircase in all white while dozens and dozens of candles glitter around her. In that moment, Isabelle believes her daughter is chosen by God.
The play deftly tackles class differences. Isabelle interacts with Nicole, a lady of the court (Kate Jennings Grant). Nicole knows she’s privileged, but some of her inadvertent comments still slip out about how poor Joan’s family must be. These sting Isabelle. Close shows us how much. But as a woman who has never encountered nobility Isabelle struggles to know what to do in response. She endures these insults with great discomfort.
These scenes are much more effective than the predictable fights between Joan’s brother Pierre and her father. Once Pierre goes to court with Joan, he gains money and influence. He looks down at his father and refuses to do farm chores any longer. It’s trite and takes our focus away from Isabelle. There could have been more done with these family characters. As is, all we have is this one-note relationship.
Lately, artists have been diving into the histories of both famous and forgotten women to tell their stories in a new way. Mother of the Maid is a necessary play. Isabelle Arc defines herself as a mother. She is what she is, and there’s power in that. She washed the dirt and grime off Joan before the English dragged her to the stake. She had told her daughter to give up St. Catherine and admit she’d never seen her, saying “you made her up in your big beautiful mind”, but none of that matters in their last moments. Close and Van Patten are at their best in the final scenes of the show. Isabelle talks to Joan in the past tense saying how much she “loved” things as if already trying to reconcile herself to the death of her daughter while Van Patten becomes completely undone and primal in her fear. This play makes Joan of Arc and her family flesh and blood. It forces us to contemplate what other mothers of famed martyred figures we’re forgetting.