Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 11, 2015

Mother of the Maid

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 6, 2015
by Jarice Hanson

It can be a great privilege to see a play go from page to stage, and for those who attended the reading of "Mother of the Maid" at Berkshire Playwrights Lab last year, the wait to see how Jane Anderson’s ambitious story of Joan of Arc, told through her mother’s eyes, has ended. The world premiere of "Mother of the Maid" at Shakespeare & Company’s Bernstein Theatre has opened, but before reviewing this new work, I was able to speak with director Matthew Penn, and some of the cast while deep into the rehearsal process.

Penn is one of the founders of Berkshire Playwright’s Lab, now in its eighth year. He has directed other plays at Shakespeare & Co., and, when his friend Jane Anderson told him about her script, he became interested in bringing it to the Berkshires.  Tina Packer immediately came to mind as the character of the Mother, and it becomes obvious in the play that only an actor of such depth and skill could effectively embody this role.

Packer is wonderful as Isabelle Arc, mother of the martyr, and the link between Joan’s spiritual self and the real world. On stage in every scene, Packer expansively fills the theatre with her vocal power and personality. Watching her try to reason with her daughter  “Joanie,” played by Anne Troup, she resigns herself to the role a mother inevitably has to play. “Your kids are your kids. You never know how they’re going to turn out," she laments.

When I asked Tina Packer whether she modeled her character on anyone in particular, she said without missing a beat, “My own mum and my Auntie Rosa.” While watching Isabelle viciously fight for her daughter’s rights, she walked to Rome to beg the Pope to lift the accusation that Joan was a heretic (she was successful), you get the sense that Packer comes from a long line of strong women.

As Penn said in our discussion, “Every great play had a first day of rehearsal.” Some of the challenges of mounting this new work come from the blending of politics, religion, and parenthood, and perhaps our collective knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of Joan of Arc becomes fodder for finding the meaning in the story. Ultimately, it becomes a story about parenthood; in a form that Penn says has a “classical framework, with contemporary resonance.”

Photo by Enrico Spada
The cast and production team also had the benefit of having the author of the play come to the Berkshires for two weeks to work with them on crafting the play for the stage. Troup mentioned that Anderson stressed the rhythm of the language, and I agree that when the play is most satisfying is when the language flows. It isn’t jarring to hear the French characters play their roles with British accents (what else do you expect at Shakespeare & Company?) but Anderson pushes the contemporary themes of the play further with colloquial speech—Joan says, “Hi mum” when she sees her mother; and Joan’s father, Jacques, ably played by Nigel Gore, blusters like a familiar television dad. The most unconventional character is St. Catherine, played by Bridget Saracino, who looks as though she’s just stepped out of a painting (and her entrance is literally, just that), but talks directly to the audience with American euphemisms to help guide the story along. 

"Mother of the Maid" has a fascinating premise and is deftly executed by the talented company. There has been a successful migration from page to stage, and the next chapter of this story is to see whether audiences resonate with the multiple themes and presentational styles to cut through the horror of what happens to Joan. We react viscerally to the description of Joan’s burning, but what happens to the family is a timeless reminder that families—especially mothers, can still love each other, even when they don’t agree.