You don’t have to be female to feel empathy for a pure-hearted individual at the mercy of powerful, amoral bureaucratic forces. George Bernard Shaw’s 1923 satirical drama Saint Joan portrays the 15-century teenage heroine, who donned male attire and led the French army to victories against the English, as the spirit of Protestantism, heeding her convictions against the counsels of both church and state.
To Shaw, Joan of Arc’s voices -- angelic advisers or, to some observers, signs of madness -- are symbolic of conscience. In Chelsea Marcantel’s world-premiere adaptation of the Shaw play, in a vibrant Delaware Theatre Company production through Feb. 24, Saint Margaret (Mary Tuomanen) and Saint Catherine (Tai Verley) become actual white-robed, silver-spangled characters spurring Joan on.
In another major change from the original, the English aristocrat Warwick, an antagonist who supports Joan’s death as a political necessity, becomes the imperious Lady Warwick (Mary Martello), no less committed to her destruction.
Neither of these key alterations makes for a more feminist Saint Joan, if that was the point, though they do provide more roles for women. Arguably, Shaw’s portrait of a solitary, illiterate farm girl up against an entirely male power structure -- besides being truer to the history -- makes the feminist case more starkly.
Marcantel’s own dialogue tends to slow the piece down, and introduces the questionable notion that Joan, for all her martial ardor, was prohibited from drawing blood. But the playwright has done a fine job of judiciously trimming Shaw’s talky text (the show runs 2½ hours, including intermission) and consolidating his passel of clerics and other characters, so that the original cast of two dozen can be covered by just eight performers. With the aid of fight choreographer Sean Michael Bradley, Marcantel and director Bud Martin, the theater’s executive director, have added scenes of swordplay to enliven the action.
Quibbles aside, the virtues of this staging are considerable, including a beautiful physical production and a gifted ensemble, most of whose members play multiple roles with precision and, in the case of Michael Doherty’s Charles the Dauphin, great comic brio.
At the heart of the drama, of course, is Joan herself, portrayed with more vulnerability than usual by Clare O’Malley. O’Malley lacks the overwhelming charisma that one might have imagined for Joan, but she excels in the climactic trial scene, in which a pale, self-doubting Joan faces her accusers. (One Marcantel addition -- Joan’s lamentation, “Is even my name to be taken from me now?” -- evokes John Proctor’s complaint in Arthur Miller’s 1953 drama The Crucible.)
Along with Martello and Doherty, Joan’s political allies and antagonists are ably played by Bradley, Charlie DelMarcelle and Dan Kern. They don’t just double roles -- they triple or quadruple them -- and it’s to the credit of director Martin and the actors that we mostly keep the various personages straight.
The physical production achieves a delicate balance between the traditional and the modern. Colin McIlvaine’s multilevel set includes two scrims, or curtains, of rope and a series of Gothic arches, and is enhanced by Thom Weaver’s radiant lighting and Nicholas Hussong and Joey Moro’s superb projections. Sound designer Michael Kiley supplies original music, and Millie Hiibel’s costume designs blend past and present, underlining the play’s contemporary resonance.