Anyone who has ever been exasperated by a petulant teenager will sympathize with Isabelle Arc. When her daughter Joan’s sullen secretiveness exceeds even the moodiest drama built into adolescence, Isabelle knows immediately something is wrong. When Joan petulantly announces Saint Catherine has been appearing to her in visions, Isabelle is initially relieved and not a little thrilled.
If you get into a good convent, she tells her daughter with a conspiratorial grin, they’ll teach you how to read and write! Of course, this isn’t what Joan has in mind. When the young girl continues that the Saint has instructed her to lead the French army and rid the country of the English, Isabelle reacts how you’d expect any sane, caring 15th century mother would. This is ridiculous. Has her previously thoughtful, down-to-earth daughter joined the bubble-headed “fairy tree girls” who thrive on fantasy and see supernatural wee folk every time a leaf moves?
Isabelle has the brutal pragmatism required of a 15th century mother: She knows children are “a numbers game,” as every mother can count on losing “a few.” Still, she isn’t prepared to lose her daughter to Saint Catherine and the 100 Years War with Britain. Not like this, at least.
So begins Jane Anderson’s fast-moving exploration of Isabelle Arc, mother of Joan of Arc, Maid of Orleans. Anderson has carved out juicy monologues for the Arcs, and BJ Jones’ competent direction makes the most of them. Parent-child dynamics are instantly recognizable, despite the references to severed heads in the wells and the constant threat of death from plague or the English troops that slaughtered the Arcs’ neighbors.
Grace Smith’s scrappy Joan credibly veers between absolute confidence and equally intense neediness. Joan’s righteous arrogance might be divinely inspired, but when she’s captured by the English and forced to face the fire, all she wants is her mother. When the flames start crackling, you can almost feel her heart rate skyrocket. Despite her relatability, Joan doesn’t have the white-hot charisma of someone who you can imagine inspiring hundreds of men to follow her into battle while also reversing more than a millennia of legally and culturally enforced gender roles. She’d make a great Mathlete Club president, but defies belief as an iconic savior of France from the 100 Years War.
But the play belongs to Kate Fry’s Isabelle. She’s put through the emotional mangle, traveling from awestruck wonder that her daughter has been tapped by God to rage-fueled bitterness that her daughter has been seemingly abandoned by God and mankind. Fry captures the vulnerability of a woman in a world where the natural and the supernatural weren’t clearly divided and when most women’s options were limited to praying, procreating and back-breaking labor.
There’s a ruthless ferocity to Fry’s performance, distilled in a moment when she demands that Joan’s prison guard empty her slop-bucket. It’s a command not a request, and it bears the authority of a king ordering a siege. It’s Isabelle — not St. Catherine or God or the French Dauphin or the Church — who is Joan of Arc’s true protector. Joan’s brother Pierre (Casey Morris, creating a broseph who wouldn’t be out of place in a Wrigleyville bar on a Saturday night) is supposed to watch out for his sister, but he’s easily distracted by his new sword. And as it turns out, Saint Catherine simply can’t be counted on.
Anderson’s exploration of spirituality and motherhood in an era when women were often valued less than chattel isn’t airtight. There’s too much exposition with Isabelle and her husband Jacques (Kareem Bandealy, believable as loving father in an era when merciless violence is often the price of survival) talking in the third person about how they feel and what they did. This gives the proceedings the feel of an instructional podcast. When Isabelle meets a lady of the court (a regal Penelope Walker), Anderson explores motherhood and class with the efficiency of textbook, not with the drama of supposedly spontaneous dialogue.
“Mother of the Maid” bears a fleeting resemblance to Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” Stoppard’s play reframes “Hamlet” from the perspective of two minor characters. Isabelle certainly isn’t minor to Joan’s story, but she is to history. Anderson gives her a voice. It’s worth hearing.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.