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THEATER REVIEW Mother of the Maid
by Mary Shen Barnidge

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Playwright: Jane Anderson

At: Northlight Theatre, at the North Shore Center for the Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Tickets: 847-673-6300; $30-$89. Runs through: Oct. 20

Dead Celebrities have always been prime targets for exploitation by adherents eager to impose their own agendas on luminaries no longer capable of refuting spurious claims. Female icons are particularly susceptible to idolatry/iconoclasm based in academic speculation, and none more so than Joan of Arc, the legendary superstar of the Hundred Years War ( 1337-1453 ), who was later executed by the Roman Catholic church for the crime of heresy, but ultimately exonerated, declared a martyr in 1456 and canonized as a saint in 1920.

In searching for a fresh approach to an origin-story previously explored by a diversity of biographers ( among them, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw and rock musician David Byrne ), Jane Anderson—herself, a youthful Maid-of-Orleans fan turned mother—might well have contemplated the childhood experiences leading the teenage prodigy to embark on her extraordinary career. Historical records document Joan's progress on the battlefield and on trial in the French courtrooms, but little is known of her upbringing in the remote Domremy region, populated by illiterate rural farmers.

The absence of evidence regarding Joan's early life allows Anderson to deviate considerably from both facts and legend: her Joan, for example, cites only Saint Catherine as her inspiration to the exclusion of other divine mentors on record, for example, while the language spoken in the Arc household—gruff papa Jacques, fussy mom Isabelle, mouthy brother Pierre—approximates a stilted faux-rustic idiom, further muddied by British censorship-laws neologisms ( "fuggin" "shite" and the inevitably mispronounced "arse" ).

These minor annoyances would be negligible in service of dialogue conveying a modicum of enthusiasm for its subject, but although nearly two-thirds of Anderson's text is devoted to the Arc family swapping generic homefolksy banter ( with Mrs. Arc addressing us in third-person narrator mode at times ), not until the action moves to the palace, seat of actual power, are the stakes perceived to be high enough to justify concern—Anderson's, or ours—for the fates of agency-bereft commoners.

Is it a coincidence that the play's most well-crafted scene is our final glimpse of Issy and Joanie weeping in each other's arms just before before the latter is dragged, terrified and screaming, to her doom? Is this image meant to invoke analogies to children in refugee camps separated from their parents? Are the post-war machinations of the 15th-century authorities who sponsor Joan's patriotic campaigns, only to betray her in the end, intended to remind us that all politicians are fundamentally untrustworthy? Was the exalted hero to countless generations of girls, in reality, merely a victim of rapacious opportunists?

Director BJ Jones and his company of actors, featuring exemplary audience favorite Kate Fry, boast impressive resumes attesting to their expertise at finessing scripts still in need of development—did you know that Joan's mother worked tirelessly to clear her late daughter's name, even appealing to the Pope himself? When even a play's author doesn't care enough about her characters to give us reason to care about them, too, why bother?

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