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Mother of the Maid: a theatrical strategy that doesn’t work

by | Sep 14, 2019 | Review | 1 comment

Pacific Theatre is producing Jane Anderson's Mother of the Maid.

Anita Wittenberg is a better actor that we get to see in Mother of the Maid. (Photo by Jalen Laine)

With Mother of the Maid, Pacific Theatre offers a pedestrian interpretation of a superficial script. It’s not terrible, but it’s not rewarding.  

Playwright Jane Anderson focuses on Joan of Arc’s mother, a character she calls Isabelle Arc, although she was more commonly known as Isabelle Romée.

Anderson’s tactic is to explore a historical story about ecstatic visions, warfare, political intrigue, and torture through the mediums of modern colloquial speech and small domestic scenes. When teenaged Joan confesses to her mom that she’s been chatting with a long-dead saint, Isabelle’s response is mild annoyance: “You coulda told me.” And, when Joan freaks her mother out by saying that her new friend wants her to go to battle, Isabelle offers the quintessentially mom-like, “Do you want me to have a talk with St. Catherine?”

Theatrically, this offhandedness might work if it were contrasted with the elemental passions that are presumably roiling beneath it — the transcendent eroticism of Joan’s visions, for instance, or Isabelle’s fierce, terrified protectiveness of her daughter. Under Kaitlin Williams’s direction, however, most of the actors in this production give straightforward, almost disinterested readings.

As Joan, Shona Struthers makes a recognizable teen, alternating between amiability and defiance, but I never got a credible sense of religious wonder from her. And Anita Wittenberg is so busy being pragmatic as Isabelle that the character stayed ordinary for me — and uninteresting.

Both of these actors pull out a stop or two in the later going, when Joan is facing being burned at the stake, but, by then, this production had already left me behind. And the script, which has arguably been gimmicky to this point, fully reveals another downside: sentimentality. When Joan is being dragged off, Isabelle screams “Joan!” At least I think that’s what she screams. It might be “No-o-o!” But either one is a cliché.

Watching Mother of the Maid, I kept wondering what the stakes were — which is interesting, because they’re pretty obvious: Isabelle wants to protect Joan, whose life is increasingly under threat. I suspect the vacancy I experienced arose because those stakes aren’t effectively attached to what we’re seeing. There’s little sustained narrative tension or escalation: crises come up but are quickly resolved. In Act 2, Isabelle and her husband Pierre fight about whether or not to go to England, where Joan is imprisoned, for instance, then suddenly and inexplicably agree that they should both make the trip. De-escalation is a repeated dynamic in this script.

And there are swathes of text in which nothing happens: Isabelle discusses her daughter with a Lady of the Court, for example — but Joan’s offstage, so that’s where our focus is, too. You might argue that, as these two women talk about their children, their exchange deepens the play’s thematic exploration of mother-daughter relationships, but it does nothing to advance the action.

My favourite performance in this production is Raes Calvert’s turn as Joan’s loutish brother Jacques. Jacques is the script’s most comic character, which allows Calvert to get the most mileage out of its idiomatic speech — when he tells Joan that she’s “out of her nut” for instance. More interestingly, Calvert finds quirky emotional truth in his character’s desire to please his mom.

Carolyn Rapanos’s set moves us with impressive ease from a peasants’ home to the dauphin’s palace to a dungeon. And there’s a lovely effect involving candles.

But I still don’t know why Pacific Theatre produced this script; as far as I can tell, it offers no significant insight into the lives of Joan of Arc or her historically remarkable mother.

MOTHER OF THE MAID By Jane Anderson. Directed by Kaitlin Williams. A Pacific Theatre production at Pacific Theatre on Friday, September 13. Continues until October 5. Tickets.


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1 Comment

  1. Rudi Leibik

    I saw ‘Mother of the Maid’, and was astounded by the script, and the power of the acting. Blown away. Highly recommended!!! I found it incredibly thought-provoking, and relevant to contemporary life: where are we called to speak up, take action – and how do we stay true (or not) to that path, despite the opposition, and struggle, and difficulty we inevitably face. I continue to think about this production, and urge anyone reading this to go see it.


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