Jane Anderson, playwright of the Main Street Theater’s latest production maid’s motheris a prolific award-winning actress and television screenwriter whose career spans The Wonderful Years, The Facts of Life, Mad Men, Olive Kitteridge, The Wife, and The Positively True Adventures of the Texas Cheerleader’s Alleged Murderer Mother. She’s been around and knows her way around a well-constructed tale. So why is this 2015 bio game such a disappointment?
Maybe because it went through 40 rewrites. It reveals a lot. Maybe he reads better than he plays. Could be. Or, in that play about a strong mother and her stubborn teenage daughter, when that child is Joan of Arc and you focus on her mother, your play may suffer from a lack of balance and interest. Something is wrong, and rewriting 41 won’t fix the problem.
There’s no fault to be found in Shannon Emerick as the eponymous main character, Isabelle. She brings her ever fierce and determined nature to the role. She’s a resolute mother, running her humble farm — a “shit hole,” she says — with unreserved faith and sound common sense. She knows the proximity of death and misery in the hamlet of Domrémy; she witnesses the marauding English army slaughtering her neighbours; she knows power and love in discipline; she also knows the power of a shoulder to caress and comfort and she savors the kindness and harsh realities of nature. It’s all on display in the strong, capable hands of Emerick with his expressive face and vocal prowess. You can see the concerned but proud farmer: hardy, sure, devout. Like Olan from Pearl Buck, she is the earth. It’s one of two performances that keeps that temperamental drama going on any realistic track.
Dain Geist, as Joan’s father Jacques, brings a gruff and believable presence to his hard worker. He is so attached to the land that he cannot conceive of Joan’s visions, nor her unshakable faith in her holy commandment to lead France to glory. His daughter is so uncompromising in her will that she must be beaten. It’ll heal her. He will fight his wife if need be to keep his entire family, but his macho pride withers under Isabelle’s motherly warmth. He witnesses Joan’s martyrdom and his short, haunting monologue is a highlight. Geist and Emerick intertwine in ways this piece can’t even imagine.
Elizabeth Barnes plays Joan as a moody, petulant teenager, which is how Anderson writes her. But more is needed. There isn’t much passion for his Joan; even his ecstatic visions are made discreet. Mom thinks it’s booming sex. You may very well know the teenage girls and their idols – Saint Catherine as Britney Spears. It is only in her final scene in Rouen prison, where her doubts come to light and she is abandoned by her Saints, that Barnes catches fire. It’s a real moment of terror. Mom comforts her with cozy village stories to soothe her as she slips into the white shirt she wears at the stake.
When a playwright takes all the attention away from a major historical figure, what’s left? All important events are rendered second-hand. Unlikely but true, Jeanne secured a meeting with Robert de Baudricourt, a garrison commander stationed in a nearby town, which led to an audience with the Dauphin of France who delegated this adolescent to lead his army (see Sainte Jeanne de Shaw). She was 17 when she began her journey to holiness.
Since this is Mom’s story, we never see any of that, or much of what follows in Joan’s incredible journey. There is no Dauphin, which is a shame because he is such a brilliant foil in Shaw. So we’re stuck on the farm for the exhibition, with Joan’s vain brother Pierre (Jacob C. Sanchez) and the unctuous village priest Gilbert (Dwight Clark), or backstage at the Reims court during the coronation of Charles VII where the rustic charm of Isabelle wins the nobility of the Lady of the Court obliges (Michele Harrell). This is not the stuff of great drama. When the distraught lady gushed, “You look fabulous. I adore you”, what are we watching, The Real Women in the Home of Reims? The play gets confused like this during most of its scenes, not knowing where to land or when to dock. It is not founded anywhere.
With the exception of Emerick and Geist, everyone seems to be in the open sea. Director Rebecca Greene Udden can’t find a convincing handle on which to hang this nebulous piece. Is it a comedy, a drama, a dramatic comedy? Either way, it’s a curious hybrid, threadbare in texture and atmosphere.
Macy Lyne’s costumes, some of them via the Costume Connection of Houston, are suitably homemade and vaguely medieval; Both of Liz Freese’s sets are minimalist in the extreme; and John Smetak’s lighting is uneventful except for the glowing halo around Joan when Isabella visits her daughter at court. With an untimely power outage, the stunning visual dies far too briefly.
Isabelle d’Arc is a fascinating personality to direct. As Anderson correctly describes, she learned to read and write and petitioned Pope Nicholas V to reopen Joan’s trial, later pleading forcefully before Pope Callixtus’ papal court in Paris for her daughter’s rehabilitation. She succeeded. In 1456, ironically in Rouen, the place of her execution, Joan’s trial was cancelled. Three years later, Isabelle dies. It took a little longer for his daughter to be canonized – 1920.
If you want a mother figure to commemorate, I suggest Isabelle d’Arc. Not because of Anderson’s game, but to counter it.
Mother of the Maid continues through February 27 at the Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; and 3 p.m. on Sunday. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative COVID test within 48 hours is required. Mandatory masks. For more information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $36 to $55.