Joan of Arc (Rosie Hallett) suffers from delusions of grandeur in Jane Anderson’s Mother of the Maid (at the Marin Theatre Company through Dec. 15). When she hears the voice of Saint Catherine in her head, Anderson places the “The Maid of Orléans” in the muddy context of her French peasant life. The playwright also demystifies Joan’s martyrdom by showing us the adolescent girl through her mother’s loving eyes.
Isabelle (Sherman Fracher) is the practical and steadfast matriarch of the Arc family’s sheep farm. She’s an ordinary woman who’s about to be thrown into extraordinary circumstances. France is at war with England circa early in the 15th century. But the conflict hasn’t been distant or abstract for the Arcs. Their neighbors, the Lebecs, were all brutally killed by the English. Throughout the play, Isabelle reminisces about how close the two families were. That event shapes the Arc family, or more accurately, bends Joan’s impressionable young mind out of shape.
Joan tells her mother that she doesn’t want to sit around and wait to be killed like the Lebecs. This is how Anderson accounts for Joan’s admonitory visions that motivate her to become a soldier. Saint Catherine speaks to her to assuage her fears and to give her courage in uncertain times. To her family’s surprise, the church and the state are both persuaded by Joan’s religious fervor and her charisma. Embraced by everyone at the Dauphin’s court, she becomes a celebrity there while she prepares to take up arms as a holy warrior. Isabelle, meanwhile, stays home worrying at the farm.
When the second act begins, Isabelle expresses an intense longing to see her daughter before she heads into battle. She walks some 300 miles from her hometown of Domrémy to the court. When she arrives at the castle gates, Joan has undergone a Medieval makeover. She has yet to take the battlefield but her drab country hairdo has been coiffed with marvelous curls. Her drab country clothes have been replaced by resplendent white robes. She’s a saint in waiting. Mother of the Maid likens this transformation to a star turn, as if Joan was the Billie Eilish of the late Middle Ages.
In that radiant light, even her mother is dazzled by the spectacle of her newly improved child. But when Joan finally enters the fray and is captured, Anderson shows how fickle and faithless her supporters are. The church and the Dauphin believed in her as long as it was politically expedient for them to do so. But as a prisoner of war, they can’t make use of her ability to inspire the troops and the general populace. She quickly becomes yesterday’s news.
That commentary on her disposable cult of personality is a minor but more compelling theme than the trope of the self-sacrificing mother. Fracher doesn’t dumb Isabelle down but during the first act the character’s pluck and mettle lands without much gravitas. Joan’s story is weighted with her tragic end. We know that she’ll burn at the stake. Her father Jacques (Scott Coopwood) grasps what his impetuous daughter is risking but defers to his wife. He doesn’t stop Joan from following her divine calling. Where Isabelle remains hopeful or naive, Jacques resigns himself to the likely reality of his daughter’s unhappy fate.
After Joan died, Isabelle asked the Pope to overturn the verdict that condemned her to death. But Mother of the Maid ends before we see her make that journey. Instead of seeing the character driven to confront the church — out of guilt, faith or to avenge her only daughter’s name — Anderson strands Isabell in a passive state of grieving. The final part of her own heroic story is a regretful omission that remains off stage and untold.
Mother of the Maid, Through Dec. 15, at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, $25-$60; 415-388-5208 or marintheatre.org.