In Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw found the story of Joan of Arc and her persecutors an apt topic for examining the evil that humans do with the best of intentions. Emmy-winning writer Jane Anderson has also found inspiration in the story of the Maid of Orléans. In the world-premiere production of her play Mother of the Maid, now running at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre under Matthew Penn's direction, Joan's mother takes center stage. We witness the family turmoil that erupts when Saint Catherine appears to the young woman with instructions to lead a French army against the English. Despite a couple of protracted scenes, Mother of the Maid comically and insightfully shines a light on the trials and rewards of raising a "different" teen, and it culminates with a scene that doesn't leave a dry eye in the house.
A sassy, occasionally profane Saint Catherine (Bridget Saracino) serves as the play's narrator. She relates how she first appeared in a field in France during the early 15th century to a wild-eyed, sexually frustrated teenager named Joan Arc (Anne Troup). Joan's mum, Isabelle (Tina Packer), is at first thrilled by the news that her daughter has had a visit from on high, but her father, Jacques (Nigel Gore), is not so pleased, especially when his daughter cuts her hair and says she joining an army of uncouth soldiers to fight the English. Father Gilbert (Jason Asprey) has given Joan's visions a thumbs-up from the Catholic Church, thus validating her claims. Joan's brother, Pierre (Nathaniel Kent), gets to ride on the coattails of her newfound fame by accompanying her to the royal court.
Joan helps the French defeat the Anglo-allied Burgundians, but she's eventually captured and turned over to the politically minded Church, which decides to try her for heresy (those claims she made about talking to saints didn't sit so well after all). It's no spoiler to reveal that it doesn't end happily for Joan (she's burned at the stake), and she leaves Isabelle and Jacques behind to mourn a daughter who dared to forge her own destiny.
At its heart, Mother of the Maid is less about Joan of Arc's life than about the difficulties of raising children, particularly the strong-willed kind, and about the unconditional love of a mother for her daughter. Anderson's heroine acts as a metaphor for the challenges that parents have balancing their own beliefs with those of their children. Saint Catherine, the only character who doesn't speak with a British accent, editorializes the action. She draws parallels between Joan's story and similar experiences that might resonate with modern parents, from showing support by attending a soccer game to lending compassion when a child comes out.
Packer plays Isabelle with endearing, motherly warmth and concern. In her peasant dress (Govane Lohbauer's costumes aptly evoke medieval times), she exudes maternal affection. Gore plays Joan's father in a crustier vein, but through his rough exterior we always see an undying love for his daughter. As a Lady of the Court, Elizabeth Aspenlieder plays a 15th-century equivalent of a wealthy helicopter mom who's secretly envious of Isabelle's daughter (her own girls never amounted to much despite their privileges). Her scenes with Packer drag a bit as the two discuss parenting methods. The play's real drama comes in the surprisingly moving final scenes before and after Joan's execution.
The centerpiece of Patrick Brennan's set is a large triptych-shaped structure through which Catherine and Joan make their saintly entrances. It's an inspired piece of scenery that also functions as a backdrop for the humble home of the Arcs. Mother of the Maid makes for a comical and moving two hours, especially for those who have ever raised a child.