Arts & Culture

Mother knows best

By Hannah Scott

Published 3:57 PDT, Mon September 23, 2019

Last Updated: 2:11 PDT, Tue October 22, 2019

Most parents tussle with their teenagers. But what happens when your daughter tells you her instructions come from a saint?

Richmond’s Ron Reed started Pacific Theatre over a quarter century ago to tell just such stories. As artistic director, his latest choice is Jane Anderson’s Mother of the Maid.

In the play, Joan of Arc takes a backseat to the parallel struggle of her mother Isabelle, played poignantly by Anita Wittenberg. Most audience members know of Joan’s historic fate, but we don’t know Isabelle’s perspective on her daughter’s changes.

The lights come up on Isabelle Arc alone on stage, providing a third-person narration of her experience parenting her teenager, Joan. The scene that follows is a relatable family argument, a sparring session between mother and daughter.

Director Kaitlin Williams highlights these family scenes at the core of the play. As Joan, Shona Struthers describes her visions with a firm confidence.

The stage space is small and intimate. Sitting on the northwest side, we missed some early facial expressions. Later, with Joan in a jail cell, we had a full view of the action. Carolyn Rapanos’ set design is minimal and effective.

In between scenes, the theatre goes black and audiences’ ears are filled with Mary Jane Pacquette’s eerie, moving musical interludes. Costume design by Stephanie Kong and Jessica Oostergo highlights the class difference between Joan’s family and the wealthy Lady of the Court (AJ Simmons).

Raes Calvert plays Joan’s brother Pierre with a lighthearted haughtiness. Ian Butcher as father Jacques is a harsh family patriarch. Richard Newman, as always a standout, and Chantal Gallant skillfully play several supporting roles, further distancing the Arc family’s humble origins from the riches of the court.

It is clear that, despite Jacques’s bombast, Isabelle is the foundation of her family. With increasing desperation, she forces herself into court to see her daughter more than once.

As Joan’s social position rises, her family life fades further away. Struthers demonstrates Joan’s naïve strength and, later, her brokenness. Despite her death looming, Joan maintains: “you don’t abandon your faith when you’re at your darkest.”

Over the course of the show, Joan grows from a young teenager to a confident adult. The scenes in her jail cell return her to a childlike state. Jonathan Kim’s lighting design increases the intimacy of these scenes.

The production spans a massive range of theatrical emotion. At times, Joan’s dry humour incited slightly uncomfortable laughter from the audience.

During her final scene, as Isabelle prepares Joan for her walk to the pyre, you could hear a pin drop.

Wittenberg captures a mother’s fierce love, remaining positive until Joan is dragged away. Isabelle lets out a blood-curdling scream as the lights dim.

The play’s final scenes include third-person narration from Jacques and Pierre, explaining Joan’s death and their reactions. It is Isabelle who closes the play, posthumously clears Joan’s name, and concludes: “I had a daughter once."

A post-show talkback revealed that the actors were attracted to the script’s contemporary language and moments of humour amidst historical turmoil. Struthers called it “a joy and a treat” to play Joan, a well-known character.

The actors said they enjoyed eating real food on stage, noting that the mead was really chamomile tea. Butcher not only played Joan’s father, but also made all the bread consumed onstage.

The talkback closed on Simmons’ hope that plays like this, with a strong female presence onstage and backstage, would continue to be produced often. 

I wholeheartedly agree with artistic director Reed’s comments on the play: “It takes me through an amazing gamut of emotions, from the laughter of recognition in the opening scenes to the heartbreak of the story’s inevitable conclusion.”

While the writing wasn’t my favourite, I would make a point of seeing these strong actors again.

Mother of the Maid plays at the Pacific Theatre, at 12th and Granville St. in Vancouver, through Oct. 5. Accessible seating is available tickets.pacifictheatre.org, or call the box office at 604-731-5518.

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