Northlight's 'Mother of the Maid' revisits Joan of Arc from different perspective
"Mother of the Maid" -- ★ ★ ★
Mothers who parented daughters and the daughters they parented may recognize themselves in Isabelle and Joan Arc, the titular characters in Jane Anderson's emotional "Mother of the Maid" at Northlight Theatre in Skokie.
Anderson's 2018 play, directed briskly and unobtrusively by Northlight artistic director BJ Jones, offers a different perspective on Saint Joan. By telling the story from Isabelle's point-of-view, "Mother of the Maid" highlights not only the conflicts that divide mothers and daughters, but also the bonds that unite them, which the play's penultimate moments make heart-rendingly clear.
Anderson ("The Wife," "Olive Kitteridge") underscores her point by using modern language to put a contemporary spin on the relationship between the peasant woman and her exceptional child, who communed with saints. It's a reminder to women of all ages of twas ever thus between mothers and daughters: While the bond between them can be strained, it isn't easily broken.
Unschooled and wonderfully ordinary, Isabelle understands 15th-century parenthood.
"Motherhood is a numbers game ... you're bound to lose a few," says Isabelle, played by the superb, ever-credible Kate Fry with warmth, humor and incandescent ferocity.
Like many of her counterparts across the centuries, she is concerned, protective and often baffled by her moody, headstrong daughter. Meanwhile, Joan (the vulnerable, quixotic, confident Grace Smith) is petulant, defiant and determined to follow her destiny over her parents' objections.
"I will not let this family crush me," she insists.
We first encounter them together in the Arc family's modest home where the pragmatic Isabelle admonishes her daughter to sit up straight, warns her against eye strain and teases her about a village boy's romantic intentions.
The spirited, snippy Joan bristles at her mother's queries and -- with the exception of a few terse responses -- resists nearly every attempt to engage in conversation.
That is until Joan tells her mother that Saint Catherine has instructed her to lead the French army against the English. Given an opportunity to bond with her daughter over their shared piety, Isabelle overcomes her initial skepticism and embraces Joan's religious calling -- although she'd prefer it led to a convent rather than a battlefield.
Isabelle suggests that Joan could learn to read and write in a convent, and might one day rise to the position of abbess.
"You get to tell people what to do," she says. "You'd like that."
Joan's father Jacques (Kareem Bandealy, intense and authentic) is less enthusiastic about her calling. A man disinclined to spare the rod, but whose love proves to be as boundless as his fury, Jacques fears for his daughter's safety. He sends son Pierre (Casey Morris) -- who takes advantage both personally and professionally of his sister's celebrity -- to serve as her knight and protector.
In a play that also touches on faith and class, the remaining characters represent the church and the state. Ricardo Gutierrez plays Father Gilbert, the village priest who first recognizes the divine in Joan. Penelope Walker plays an unintentionally condescending Lady of the Court, who dotes on Joan but inadvertently insults Isabelle when she assumes the Arc family is poor. Separated by class, the two women nevertheless find common ground as mothers, specifically mothers of talented daughters.
To her credit, Anderson resists painting the priest and the lady as villains. That said, Anderson's dialogue for them comes across as mannered and expositional. And on several occasions, Anderson makes Joan's fate too obvious. The references needlessly telegraph a story that concludes with a sacrifice universally known and movingly portrayed by Fry and Smith. Audible sobs from the audience accompanied the play's penultimate scene -- a wrenching depiction of reconciliation and love -- that reminds us once again of the eternal bond mothers and daughters share.
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Location: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, (847) 673-6300 or northlight.org
Showtimes: 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 20. Also 7 p.m. Oct. 13. No 1 p.m. show Oct. 9.
Running time: About two hours, with intermission
Parking: Free in the lot and parking garage
Rating: For teens and older; contains mature subject matter and implied violence