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The stagewide steps appear to be already smoldering as the audience assembles for Saint Joan at Olney Theatre, and when the lights come up, it’s the radiant, post-bonfire Joan of Arc who stands at their midpoint. She’s bathed in a spiritual glow, surrounded by the men who in life were her followers or tormentors—sometimes both. Told by one of them that the authorities who condemned her to be burnt for heresy have long since forgiven her, she’s bemused.
“Would they unburn me?” she wonders.
“If they could, they’d think twice before doing it,” says her buddy, the Dauphin.
This is quintessential Shaw—but not, let’s note, where the play usually begins. Director Chris Hayes came across Shaw’s unproduced film script of Saint Joan and then developed his own stage adaptation, starting with a flash-forward to the play’s epilogue. The idea was to make what can sometimes seem a longish evening tolerable for the more impatient among us.
What the more impatient among us might be doing at an evening of Shavian rhetoric is anyone’s guess, but it’s safe to say that Hayes’ flat, lethargic rendering of the title character’s rise to fame and flame isn’t going to please them much. The changes in the script aren’t radical, apart from the opening. The trims may be substantial, but they hardly make the evening zip along. Olney’s press release promises a brisk two hours’ traffic on the stage, an estimate that proves optimistic by a full half-hour. It’s not quite a would-try-the-patience-of-a-saint Joan, but it’s close.
This is partly because Jennie Eisenhower’s Maid of Orleans is so tiresome—beaming, boisterous, relentlessly confident, and piously full of herself. Where some Joans cajole, others seduce, and still others inspire, she just barrels ahead with a doggedness that is more off-putting than rousing. Shaw famously declared that his heroine was a “shrewd country girl” rather than the ethereal creature romancers have sometimes made her—either way, she must be someone soldiers would likely follow into battle. This Joan might be persuasive in leading a Bible-study group, but she’s all but unimaginable at the head of a crusade against an invading army. Hers is the spunky air of a cheerleader, not the inspirational aura of a saint, and though she sounds emphatic enough when coming up with quick comebacks to the unimaginative clerics and royal bureaucrats who oppose her in the evening’s early stages, when she starts talking about her voices she’s eminently discountable.
Worse yet, she’s no match at all for the accusers who, in the play’s climactic heresy trial, seek to save her soul by extinguishing her passion. They’re up there arguing politics and religion, the essential primacy of the church, and the essential cruelty of mercy, and she’s just plain out of her depth. When she opts for the stake rather than a prison cell, there’s no anguish, just a reluctance to be cooped up indoors, and when she rips up the confession she’s just signed, it’s with the petulance of a teenager.
Lawrence Redmond is appealingly sardonic as a haughty bishop, Stephen Schmidt nicely oily as an earl who schemes to put Joan away for reasons that have more to do with politics than faith, and Jeffries Thaiss deftly two-faced as Joan’s practical aide-de-camp in the play’s first half. But the rest of the cast ranges from histrionic (Richard Pilcher, uncharacteristically shrill as a pedant who sees the light too late) to drab (Peter Kybart, authoritative but dry in the usually juicy role of Inquisitor).
Hayes lines them all up in neat rows on designer James Wolk’s broad staircase as if he were posing them for a class picture. This doesn’t make for a very active-looking military campaign against the Brits, but for the trial, it’s handsome enough. The staircase proves more adaptable than it initially appears, morphing from cathedral to courtroom with comparatively little fuss—and then glowing with the fires of hell when Joan is finally burned. (This last would be a nifty three-second effect; alas, it’s stretched to fill the better part of a minute, diluting its own impact considerably.)
Sekula Sinadinovski’s costumes are an attractive blend of modern and medieval, suggesting that at some point, it occurred to the company that Saint Joan might have something to say to an audience confronted daily by a nasty tangle of politics and religion in its nation’s leadership. The opening-night crowd was clearly game to run with any parallels between medieval zeal and contemporary fanaticism the director cared to point up. There were snorts at a few of Shaw’s early cracks about sanctimonious politicians and conniving priests, and the audience seemed to be getting the ironic drift better than the folks speaking the lines. But after a sufficient number of sallies that should have resonated were inflected so mildly that they barely prompted chuckles, the crowd gave up. CP