“I had a daughter.” That poignant phrase began the testimony of Isabelle Arc at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on Nov. 7, 1455 at the retrial of her martyred daughter Joan, 25 years after being found guilty of heresy and burned at the stake. The following July, the Pope’s tribunal pronounced her conviction “null, invalid, worthless, without effect and annihilated.”
It’s surely no accident that those same words are spoken – in sorrow quivering with urgency and appended with the word “once” – by Isabelle at the close of Mother of the Maid. As the title suggests, Jane Anderson’s play is not about the devout farm girl who followed the voices of saints in her head to rouse the faltering, outnumbered troops against the invading British and restore King Charles to his throne. It’s about her mom.
Mother of the Maid, which just opened at the Public Theater, stars Glenn Close as Joan’s “Ma,” whose first thought on spotting her daughter in the fields ecstatically listening to St. Catherine was that she was masturbating. “You thought I was diddling myself?” asks Joan, incredulous. “I seen it all, my dear,” Ma replies, pragmatically. “I know things. I’ve done things. Whatever it is, we’ll keep it between us.” God help her, she warns, if “Da” hears about this. “I’m having holy visions, Ma,” Joan finally admits, possibly in a last-ditch effort to put the sin of self-pleasuring to rest.
I’m not making this up, nor am I repeating these lines to slander Anderson with the charge of flippancy. She's an accomplished playwright (The Baby Dance, Looking for Normal) and screenwriter (Olive Kitteridge and Close’s new film The Wife). I assume Mother of the Maid is meant to cast an empathic light on the character who likely suffered the most after Joan. (Colm Tóibín did something similar with The Testament of Mary, as did Paula Vogel – in an irreverent tone closer to Anderson’s – in Desdemona, a Play About a Handkerchief.)
Mother of the Maid opens with Isabelle on a stool in the kitchen of the Arc home, picking burrs and mud clumps from raw wool piled on the dirt floor. Close, in a burnt-orange gown, apron and kerchief, is both character and narrator, at first speaking of Isabelle in the third person as clever, handy and hard-working, someone who “never blamed God for a blessed thing.” When Joan (Grace Van Patten, pumped up with adolescent fervor and disbelief) confides about her visits from St. Catherine, Isabelle is skeptical but not dismissive. And when Joan reveals that she has been instructed to join the local troops against the British, Isabelle resists. “Joan. Girls who travel with the troops are whores. Do you know that?” “I won’t be following an army,” she replies. “I’ll be leading it.”
Equally skeptical are Da (Dermot Crowley, gruff) and Joan’s buffoonish brother Pierre (Andrew Hovelson, excellent) – at least until Joan’s visions have been certified by Father Gilbert (Daniel Pearce, unctuous), she’s cut her hair, been outfitted with armor and sword, and installed in the court of the Dauphin’s castle.
In a jarring change of scene (the suggestive settings are by John Lee Beatty, the quicksilver lighting by Lap Chi Chu), we are moved with Joan to the castle, where she is living the good life, as evidenced by the plentiful food, the grand furnishings and the elegant clothes (Jane Greenwood's costumes are pitch-perfect). Isabelle tells us she has walked 300 hard miles to arrive, and it’s moving when a well-groomed Lady of the Court (Kate Jennings Grant, exuding the cluelessness of the well-behaved supplicant) washes her bruised, mud-caked feet while singing Joan’s praises. Such are the perks of celebrity.
There remains a rough-hewn, anachronistic quality to the dialogue – this ain’t Shaw – that never lands as deliberate, but rather, annoys. “I don’t give a crap.” “What’s the problem, Ma?” “Get over it.” They don’t bring us into the story so much as block us out. Isabelle’s narration has the same effect, and director Matthew Penn (who helmed episodes of Close’s FX series Damages) draws out his star’s actressy earnestness when less might have been more.
The play’s best scene doesn’t involve Joan at all. When Isabelle returns to the castle, where her daughter now lies shackled and starving on a cold floor in the dungeon below, she encounters the same Lady, who gamely expresses heartfelt sympathy in sharing a mother’s grief. “I feel sick about this,” she says. “I love your daughter.”
Isabelle calls bullshit on that. “No you don’t,” she all but spits back, ticking off the innumerable small things only a mother can know. “You never knew her restlessness. And you don’t know her fear. My child is so afraid.” It’s an honest moment, free of narration and predictability.
And it might have made a terrific beginning to a play about Joan of Arc’s mother. For it was after her daughter’s death that the historic Isabelle came to life, setting out alone to roam the countryside, demanding justice and retribution until, finally, she wins, reducing the Pope’s tribunal to tears with those four words: “I had a daughter.”