It is easy to see why Glenn Close has chosen to play Joan of Arc’s mother in Jane Anderson’s play “Mother of the Maid,” which deserves to be a big hit at The Public Theater. Close makes Isabelle Arc a searing, poignant character with emotionally dynamic scenes expressing the horror of what happens to her daughter.
The play, directed by Matthew Penn with tight precision and intensified emphasis on key situations, goes where other dramas about Joan have not—emphasis on her family in relation to all that took place. At heart this is a mother-daughter story.
It is also a different take on Joan with emphasis on confrontations that one can see as typical of mother-daughter relationships despite the very untypical situation. We also see Joan, remarkably portrayed by Grace Van Patten, ultimately as a a mistreated victim waiting in terror for the impending burning, but still holding to her faith in St. Catherine. The playwright assumes we know the trial history, so finds no need to go over that territory. It climactically jumps to awaiting the execution.
But in the buildup we get a portrait of the Arc family, including her father and brothers. We also see Joan early on when she has become a soldier and is guest at the stately home of a lady of the court. Close as Isabelle, a peasant woman, arrives at the home to see her daughter, and although she is struck by the luxurious surroundings, she is true to herself and stalwart in her attitude of protectiveness toward Joan. Isabelle may doubt’s Joan’s devotion to and belief in her beloved St. Catherine, but that in no way diminishes her love for her daughter.
While the cast members give other characters their due, it is Close who makes this her play with a performance that surely ranks high among her many accomplishments. The scene in which she peers through a window to watch her daughter burned at the stake enables her to show a mother’s total anguish in all its horror.
John Lee Beatty’s scenic design makes the most of the stage space to project the grim tone of the play, and lighting designer Lap Chi Chu and costume designer Jane Greenwod add to capturing that tone.
The total effect is to make watching “Mother of the Maid” a unique experience and prompt one to think about a new dimension to the Joan of Arc saga that has been approached differently in previous theater and film versions. One walks away with deep feelings both for Joan, so effectively played by Van Patten, and for her hitherto overlooked mother, brought so amazingly to life and into our minds by the brilliance of Close’s acting and the perceptive writing by Anderson. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-967-7555. Reviewed October 18, 2018.