Sunday, September 22, 2019

Saintly Instincts: 'Mother of the Maid' Provides Intriguing Look at Joan of Arc, Not as a Heroine but as Someone's Child -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Mother of the Maid
by Jane Anderson
directed by BJ Jones
Northlight Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 20

Heading into Jane Anderson's Mother of the Maid at Northlight, I was intrigued by what I knew of the premise.

Although I have never had any ingrained reverence for Joan of Arc, I am aware of her veneration as a teenage French war heroine turned victim, martyr, saint and symbol.

While I appreciated the play filling me in on the basics of her legend, to capsulize her mythic tale from the perspective of her family--particularly her mother--seemed like a rather a compelling approach.

Which it is to a large extent, especially given the stellar work--as Isabelle Arc--by the always terrific Kate Fry, and by Grace Smith as her headstrong daughter Joan.

I like how Anderson never cheats in making Mother of the Maid a period piece, set 6 centuries ago amid The 100 Years War between England and France (with fine costuming by Izumi Inaba), yet almost instantly makes contemporary audiences realize it won't be too theatrically stuffy by having Isabelle speak to her teenager--sans judgment--about masturbation. 

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Though I imagine many are far better versed than I in Joan of Arc history lessons, I don't want to reveal too much about how the narrative unfolds across two acts and approximately two hours.

Let's just say that Joan--who became known as the Maid of Orleans--tells her mom that she's had visions of Saint Catherine, believes she's been chosen to lead the French to battlefield victory, is met with considerable incredulity by both ma and pa (Kareem Bandealy), but with the buy-in of a local bishop (Ricardo Gutierrez) heads off to war with brother Pierre (Casey Morris) by her side.

Beyond citing some nice work by Penelope Walker as a kindly lady of the court, I won't share further plot details except to note that things don't go so rosily for brave young Joan.

And while Isabelle wishes things could be different, Fry warmly depicts her maternal love and faith in her daughter as steadfast.

The premise, acting and direction by Northlight Artistic Director BJ Jones are all strong enough to make Mother of the Maid sufficiently entertaining.

To use a hallowed historic persona such as Joan of Arc to reflect on how a mother's love could, and should, be boundless is a neat creative approach, and--in my being a huge Bruce Springsteen fan--it reminded me of a relatively obscure song of his, "Jesus Was an Only Son," which takes a somewhat similar approach (as he explains here).

But, at least at face value, Mother of the Maid doesn't seem angular or surprising enough to feel transcendentally special as a work of theater. The abiding theme, of Isabelle's enduring love for her daughter, is warm and noble, but also pretty straightforward.

But in leaving the theater, I saw an accompanying graphic panel--not duplicated in the show program, as it probably should be--which has this explanation from the author, Jane Anderson:
"Mother of the Maid is a deeply personal play for me... I had a Joan of Arc obsession when I was a young gay girl trying to come out to my mom. I think women of my ilk had that with Joan blasting apart traditional male/female roles. Then when I became a mother, I realized how it must've been to raise a child like me. Now that I am older, I have a deeper understanding of what it is to raise an unusual child, and how painful and exciting it is."
Although it doesn't greatly change my assessment of the play, these insights do add considerable complexity to perceptions of Mother of the Maid is "about."

Certainly, while watching it, I picked up on how Anderson fused in the familiar battles teenagers have with their parents. One could be Joan of Arc and still bicker with mom about boys and chores and choice of clothing.

But Anderson's posted comments helped me further see Mother of the Maid--in which Isabelle clearly is the lead role--from Joan's point of view.

How do you tell--and convince without, or with, reproach--your parents that you're different, but normal, and every bit as deserving of their love and acceptance.

How do you stand up and announce, at least in their eyes, "I'm special," while really just doing what comes naturally, and being who you're meant to be, with them--hopefully--having your back, no matter what may ultimately be at stake?

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