A mother with a teenage daughter has many hopes and fears for their child. “I hope I raised her right.” “I wish we would talk more.” “I’m afraid for her safety in the current political climate.” “I wish she would wear a dress.” But rarely does a mother’s hopes or fears include, “I hope my daughter hears voices that tell her to save all of France.” That was an aspiration or fear that hadn’t even crossed Isabelle Arc’s mind. “Mother of the Maid” is the tale of a mom trying to support a teenage daughter while reconciling her family’s response to raising her. This sounds like your ordinary family drama, but the difference is that her daughter is Joan of Arc: French heroine, Roman Catholic saint, and, of course, The Maid of Orléans.
Written by Jane Anderson, “Mother of the Maid,” in its Midwest premiere at Northlight, is a surprisingly humorous and relatable portrayal of parenting. Director BJ Jones does an impressive job of honoring the source material while bringing a fresh take to the timeworn tale. Isabelle Arc is a middle-class mother of five, struggling to raise her angsty teenage daughter in a climate of gender identity, societal privilege, and political agendas that threaten the lives of her children.
Kate Fry (Isabelle Arc) and Grace Smith (Joan of Arc) lead an army of adept actors through difficult situations that reflect our own archaic atmosphere. Isabelle prays like a god-fearing woman who was taught to speak to God, but not to read. When Smith’s Joan is forgotten by her country despite her heroic military work, Isabelle experiences her betrayal and treats her with the tenderness of a mother with her newborn baby. Smith convincingly makes the transition from angsty teen to confident commander to demoralized prisoner, all while portraying a girl who made people listen to her at a time when women had no voice.
Immediately upon entering the theater, you are met with Scott Davis’ towering timber set. Intimidating and foreboding, it establishes the atmosphere of what’s to come. The play sometimes has a character shift to third person so that the audience can use their imagination to fulfill the imagery while not losing any of the play’s poignant human quality. This exemplary storytelling carries into the design and direction, as when Joan is presented as a divine figure, complete with a holy glow surrounding her and a backdrop of stars (lights by Christine A. Binder) and heavenly music (Andre Pluess).
The production’s costumes (Izumi Inaba) are enthralling. What could’ve been a lifeless sea of brown is instead an intriguing mix of textures and silhouettes. Inaba employs gold stitching and underlays in some of the fabrics to create a subtle glow. Techniques like ruching and quilting provide eye-catching detail to even the plainest of ensembles. The construction of each piece balances necessary historical accuracy (handmade quality, color restrictions) with a polished, elegant aesthetic. Retaining iconic features like Joan’s hairstyle and boyish silhouette rooted the play in reality while the costume inventions made it feel otherworldly.
“Mother of the Maid” is the story behind the legend: the girl behind the saint, the mother behind the maid. What Isabelle Arc ultimately teaches the audience is that when it comes to raising children all you can do is support them and hold them when they’re suffering. Isabelle wanted to take all of the hardships and pain for her daughters but Joan had to experience those things for herself. Isabelle’s rage over the thoughts and prayers of those in power echos what many parents feel today. Isabelle advocated where she could for her daughter, stayed strong for her in the face of unbearable loss, and learned how to see the world through her eyes. If that isn’t an outstanding example of modern parenting, I don’t know what is. (Hayley Osborn)
Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Boulevard, Skokie, (847)673-6300, northlight.org, $30-$89. Through October 20.