One frustrating irony of the #MeToo movement is that while it is ostensibly about empowerment, the women most often held up as profiles in courage are victims—or, in the favored parlance, survivors. It’s certainly impossible to dispute the bravery of those who come forward after suffering sexual violence (or misconduct, in some cases, for we use those terms interchangeably at our own peril), risking disbelief and scorn and far worse, to speak truth to power. But as a bearer of two x chromosomes and mom to a budding alpha female, I’m frankly hankering right about now for more stories in which the heroine takes action before, or rather than, being acted upon.
Mother of the Maid, the quietly piercing, luminous new play now running at the Public Theater, gives us two such characters, lifted from life—one an iconic figure, one fleshed out by playwright Jane Anderson’s vibrant imagination and astute take on historical and intergenerational dynamics. The maid is “Joan Arc,” presented here in a gorgeously unmannered, often quite funny performance by Grace Van Patten, who makes the future saint the most accessible of teenage girls: stubborn, willful, idealistic and a lot more vulnerable than she realizes. When this Joan makes progress or is recognized for her valor, Van Patten can seem at once chuffed and embarrassed; the actress demonstrates, instinctively, that strange mix of awkwardness, insecurity and perceived invincibility particular to youth.
The mother, played by a heart-stopping Glenn Close, is Isabelle Arc—a simple peasant woman, as she will remind us, whose “skirts smell ripe as a cheese,” and who possesses none of her daughter’s soon-to-be legendary gifts. But Close, who has lent blazing intelligence and wit, as well as heart, to a wide array of more patently sophisticated and often less readily sympathetic characters, finds in Isabelle a resilience and open-mindedness, and a sheer belief in the power and possibility of goodness, that establish this woman as very much her daughter’s mother.
[Read David Finkle’s ★★★ review here.]
The extraordinary, if hardly unusual, bond between mother and daughter is touchingly, amusingly established early in the first act, as Isabelle begins to suspect that her sullen daughter may have been spooked by something, or even gotten herself pregnant. “I’m having holy visions, Ma,” Joan finally blurts out, to which Isabelle responds, matter-of-factly, “Oh, my sweet girl. Why didn’t you just come out and tell me?”
There’s some initial tension, as Isabelle frets about the prospect of her adolescent daughter facing great danger with, and potentially from, an army of men. “Get off your high horse,” Isabelle scoffs at one point. Her husband, Jacques, a rather coarser man (made endearing by an excellent Dermot Crowley, who captures the spousal and paternal devotion under his character’s brashness) is more blunt. But once the inevitability of Joan’s course becomes clear, Isabelle’s faith in her daughter—if not in her safety—never wavers.
After Joan is embraced by the Dauphin (at least until she becomes a liability), Isabelle finds herself in his lavishly appointed castle; some of the play’s funnier scenes find her commiserating with a well-meaning but hopelessly sheltered Lady of the Court, played with mirthful solicitude by a tasty Kate Jennings Grant. As they exchange accounts of their very different children—the Lady’s are “all a bit spoiled, I’m afraid,” she admits—Isabelle begins to sense she is being patronized, however compassionately, and Close shows us some of the pride and spine behind the simpler woman’s earthy graciousness, qualities she has imparted to her less tactful teenager.
Mother reaches its harrowing climax in a scene where Isabelle prepares Joan for execution, gently undressing and washing the very young woman she has sought to protect throughout her life. In a particularly beautiful, wrenching moment, Isabelle tells her daughter of a visitation from Saint Catherine, Joan’s perceived guide. “She just lit up the room,” Close says, her voice and expression full of a strange radiance suggesting a place beyond tears. “She’s told me she’s going to be with you. She said that you should just keep looking up at the sky and she’ll take you up with her before the flames even reach you.”
Whether Isabelle actually believes any of this is irrelevant. Her final words to her daughter are the mother’s own act of courage, of defiance, of grace. Joan may not survive, at least in the corporeal sense, but in Mother of the Maid, love wins—and women are the victors.