'Mother of the Maid' at the Public Theatre: A good idea gone terribly wrong

Garce Van Patten (left) and Glenn Close in "Mother of the Maid," through Dec. 23 at the Public Theatre in New York.

What a waste of a good idea. Jane Anderson’s new play Mother of the Maid, through Dec. 23 at The Public Theater, takes as its starting question what it would be like to be the mother of  Joan of Arc, nicknamed The Maid of Orleans, later known as St. Joan.  Glenn Close plays Mrs. Arc, Isabelle to most, Izzy to her husband, and Mama to her daughter.  Are teenage daughters all alike, regardless of century?  This play aims to answer the question with sainthood as sitcom, so in effect the answer is yes. Joan as stubborn teenager is a handful: mouthy, wearing men’s clothes, and drunk on holiness. 

Joan of Arc, one of the legendary medieval saints, is generally credited with inventing Protestantism in a Catholic world and leading the feminist movement before the fact as the leader of the French army in the Hundred Years War against England. She claimed St. Catherine appeared to her and spoke to her, abandoning her at the last terrible minute when she was put to the stake.

George Bernard Shaw’s monumental play St Joan conveys the complex religious politics, as well as creating fascinating characters with huge, brilliant debate speeches.  Anderson’s play aspires to a kind of naturalism, eliminating the immense authority figures, and replacing the grand arenas of the church, the state, and the battlefield with kitchen drama.

This naturalism is awkwardly bolstered by updated language (“her own person,” “wonky,” “I got it covered,” and much more of the same). Working against the inherent drama of a heroic girl being burned at the stake is the broad, television-like acting rather than naturalistic stage acting. Adding to the distraction from the tragic is the device of the actors stepping out of character and into the role of narrator to continue the story, further distancing the material from either the real and/or the important. Joan’s mawkish final speech is about the rag doll she threw on the floor when she was a little girl, and Close’s shameless big screaming scene as her daughter is taken to the stake concludes the play with embarrassing excess.

Glenn Close punches every line — too loud and too deliberate to sound like anybody speaking in her own house, however humble a cottage. As Joan, Grace Van Patten seems neither holy nor teenage; it’s just a role, and she knows her lines. She seems to have no inner life, no believable excitement or fear. Most of her suffering is supplied by makeup to indicate bruises left by chains. Dermot Crowley as Jacques Arc is first a bully of a Da and then a destroyed father without ever indicating how he got from here to there.

Jane Anderson’s script (Glenn Close stars in her recent screenplay, The Wife) is as superficial as Matthew Penn’s direction; he encourages laugh lines and wooden speechmaking, so playwright and director seem well-matched. 

Through Dec. 23 at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.