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'Mother of the Maid' review: Glenn Close gives an exquisite, heart-wrenching performance

Glenn Close and Grace Van Patten in "Mother

Glenn Close and Grace Van Patten in "Mother of the Maid." Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT "Mother of the Maid"

WHERE Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.. Manhattan

INFO Tickets, from $95,  publictheater.org, 212-967-7555

BOTTOM LINE Gripping family drama tells the Joan of Arc story from her mother's perspective. 

What mother of a teenage girl hasn’t at one point felt the unbridled anger of said child?

"She hates us," says Isabelle of her petulant, if gifted, 17-year-old daughter Joannie. But this is no contemporary tale. "Mother of the Maid,” Jane Anderson’s gripping family drama now at the Public Theater,  is set in 15th century France and the family at the center of it all is one you’ll probably recognize. Last name: Arc.

But this is not Joan’s story. Anderson focuses here on the agony the French martyr's road to the stake inflicts on her father Jacques (Dermot Crowley), her brother Pierre (Andrew Hovelson) and most excruciatingly on her mother Isabelle (Glenn Close, in a heart-wrenching performance).

On stage for the entire two hour, ten-minute play, Close paints a vivid portrait of a woman in the background, and in that there are parallels to her Oscar-buzzy role as the wife of a Nobel laureate in Anderson’s current film “The Wife” (though the playwright has said the convergence of the two projects is coincidental).

We first meet Isabelle Arc in no-nonsense mode, talking directly to the audience as she brings us up to speed on this God-fearing woman who can neither read nor write. When Joan (an introspective Grace Van Patten) comes back from the field where, in her mind anyway, she's been convening with St. Catherine, they get into it as only mothers and daughters can. Isabelle knows something is bothering her child —"Did someone get you pregnant?"— but she has to worm it out of her. "I’ve been having holy visions, Ma,"  she reluctantly reveals.   

Under director Matthew Penn, the action moves seamlessly from the Arcs' humble farmhouse to the sumptuous palace of King Charles to a desolate prison cell (scenic designer John Lee Beatty works his typical magic in a tight space).  It's hard, though, to take your eyes off Close as she delivers an exquisite and honest display of emotional range, from exasperation to resignation to pride to fury to despair. 

The final scene is a knife in the gut, as Isabelle gathers the strength — from where, it is hard to fathom — to bathe her daughter and help her change into the white dress she will be burned alive in. And when Joan is finally dragged away and Isabelle sinks to the floor howling in rage, the story somehow becomes more immediate. It's simply impossible to not think of mothers all over the world who have lost a cherished child for whatever reason — and of the vast potential that was lost with them.   

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