By Retta Blaney
When she was growing up, Jane Anderson had an odd role model for a young girl who was not Catholic. She looked all the way back to the 15th century and found inspiration from a French peasant who was burned at the stake for heresy.
“Always when I was a teenager I looked at Joan of Arc as an iconic character,” Anderson said. “I wanted to be like that, with freedom, doing dangerous things, leaving home, going out into the world and having outrageous adventures.”
As an adult she still thought about Joan, but her perspective shifted. “When I become a mother I understood what it was like for my mother to have a daughter like me, what it’s like to have a young girl who is strange but gifted and a mother who loves her no matter what.”
Anderson, a playwright and screenwriter, has combined these two sources of her inspiration into a play, Mother of the Maid, in production off-Broadway through Dec. 23 at The Public Theater with Glenn Close in the role of Isabelle Arc, Joan’s mother.
The play, which has been greatly rewritten since its world premiere in Lenox, Mass., in 2015, draws on Anderson’s considerable research for historical context, but employs modern language and dramatic license, with phrases like wonky and good to go.
“I didn’t want to write a historical play. It’s a very personal play in the form of historical drama. It’s not a [George Bernard] Shaw play, although Saint Joan is magnificent. Shaw wanted a play about politics. I wanted to loosen it up and make it emotional and personal.”
Ben Brantley, The New York Times’s chief theater critic, gave the production an unqualified rave, praising Anderson’s “robustly sentimental” writing and Close “for the kind of acting with a capital A that once had Broadway theatergoers queuing around the block for returns. … When in her wrenching final soliloquy Ms. Close’s Isabelle talks about shaking her fists at God, you can’t help feeling that the Almighty had better take cover” (“Glenn Close Raises a Saint in ‘Mother of the Maid’” [Oct. 17]).
Anderson’s Isabelle provides rich material for an actress, traveling a long emotional journey in the play’s two hours. At the start, she’s a hard-working wife and mother, her full-skirted, faded dress soiled by farm labor. Her conversations with Joan run along the lines of contemporary mother-daughter chats. She wants to know if Joanie is interested in any boys and steers the subject around to sex in an attempt to educate her daughter and find out what she’s up to in that area.
When Joanie reveals that she’s been visited by St. Catherine, Isabelle sounds more 21st century than 15th as she asks eagerly, “What does she look like?” and “What was she wearing?” The scene establishes an intimacy between the two and creates a family life more accessible than a strict historical account would offer.
When the local priest arrives at their humble home with a letter from the bishop proclaiming that Joan’s visions are authentic, Isabelle slowly moves from skepticism to wonder and finally to pride.
“She’s special,” she says in awe to her husband, who is unconvinced by the priest’s assurances. “Who are we to keep her down? Our girl has been chosen and we should both be fierce proud.”
But Isabelle is concerned about her daughter going off to battle with a regiment of men — until Joan comes downstairs with her newly cut hair and masculine tunic.
“No one’s going to be bothering you,” Isabelle says dryly.
Anderson weaves such comic comments throughout the first act, bringing the centuries-old story in line with contemporary family dramas. After a while, though, the loss of Joanie begins to weigh heavily on Isabelle, a woman who, true to her day, had never left her tiny village. She gathers her courage and walks 300 miles in the rain and mud, with blisters and aching knees, to the court where Joan is living before the fight against the occupying English army. Isabelle is impressed with the grandeur of her daughter’s new life, but when the tide begins to turn against Joan, Isabelle is faced with a spiritual crisis.
“Isabelle believes with all her heart what the local pastor told her,” Anderson says. “She didn’t see the politics of the church manipulating their lives. Her husband sees it and is afraid their daughter will be manipulated.”
We see just how fierce Isabelle’s love for her daughter is as she defends her to the lady of the court and all who will listen. This uneducated peasant is even willing to take on the pope. “I want to meet the man in a hat and tell him my daughter is no heretic,” she cries out.
Isabelle is unsuccessful, and Anderson creates a heartbreaking scene of her visiting Joan in prison, seeing her daughter thin and dirty, lying on the cold stone floor, chained to a wall, with an unemptied bucket of her waste beside her. In great anguish, she begins bathing the body of her child before it is to be burned. This is the scene that most affected the playwright.
“I was shaking. It was so awful to imagine. What an unspeakable thing for a mother to have to do.”
Anderson has done a lot of rewriting since the 2015 production, most notably eliminating a character, St. Catherine, who is now only spoken of as part of Joan’s visions.
“She was a kind of narrator, funny and irreverent as she guided us through the play,” Anderson said. “I was being far too clever for my own good. It took away from the emotion. Now it’s entirely Isabelle’s point of view.”
Since the play is presented without a historical disclaimer in the program, audiences may come away thinking they have learned new biographical information. At the end, many in the theater gasped as they heard that Joan’s father witnessed her execution, went blind as a result, and died in a cart on his way home. In truth, while her father did not live long after her death, he did not die that day and was not blinded.
“This is not a historical play,” Anderson said again. “It’s a family drama. I wasn’t interested in sticking to the facts. I wanted to find images that best described the emotional journey that my characters were on. As I started writing Jacques’s monologue about being there for his daughter’s burning, it only made sense to me that he’d go blind after watching his girl go through such an unspeakably awful thing. It’s poetic license.”
One line that is factual comes from Isabelle’s testimony from the hearing held in 1455 to clear Joan’s name of heresy, 25 years after she was burned, when Isabelle was in her 80s.Anderson found it “so unbelievably moving” that she made it the last line of the play. Its simplicity is powerfully dramatic.
The diminutive actress stands alone in a spot of light and utters the words of pain and loss the mother spoke centuries ago: “I had a daughter once.”
Retta Blaney is an award-winning journalist and the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors.