Who was Saint Joan? Subject of many books, movies and plays, The Maid, as she was sometimes called, has been a fascinating historical figure. Defying her gender and station, she was able to rally the French troops and lead them to victory over the British soldiers, claiming to hear the voice of God. After her victory, she was captured, tried and convicted of heresy. Since she would not recant, she was burned at the stake. Years later, her family appealed to the courts and had her conviction overthrown. She was later canonized.
As portrayed by Condola Rashad, Joan is an impetuous teenager. She speaks very quickly, and often passionately, although sometimes it sounded like she was shouting. She playfully and irreverently refers to some of the influential men around her by nicknames: Charles, the ineffectual Dauphin (played by Adam Chanler-Berat), she calls Charlie, and one of the noblemen, Noodle. At other times, like any teen flouting authority, she clearly shows what she thinks of the noblemen and clergy, insulting them all. Rashad is the lone female in a mostly male-dominated cast and she manages to hold everyone’s full attention. In fact, at times, the play drones on with conversations between the actors, but it is never boring when Rashad is present.
Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw, written three years after the canonization of Joan, spends Act 1 moving through her successes, getting the support of the French soldiers and the Dauphin. She seems to be capable of small miracles. For her, chickens lay eggs, the West Wind blows, and eventually the French army triumphs.
In Act 2, greater emphasis is placed upon her trial, death and eventual pardon. Because she claims that she is hearing the voice of God and refuses to acknowledge the church as the ultimate arbiter of religion, her death is deemed necessary, religiously as well as politically.
The male ensemble is experienced and talented. Jack Davenport (“Smash”) is sardonic and clever in his Broadway debut as Earl of Warwick. Patrick Page gives his usual fine performance lending his sonorous voice to the roles of the Inquisitor as well as Robert de Baudricourt. John Glover is somber and stately in his two roles and Daniel Sunjata as Dunois is one of the few of the likeable characters.
The major flaw of the play is that it is repetitive and consequently, tedious. In the exchange between Warwick and the Bishop of Beauvais (a fine Walter Bobbie), the two men discuss the problems that Joan is causing. Then they exchange some clever Shavian wordplay, but at that point the conversation has gone on for at least 10 minutes too long. My companion wondered aloud whether Shaw had been paid by the word and towards the end, I began to wonder that myself. Although sometimes clever and even funny at times, it is also didactic, tiresome to the point of being soporific. Skilled director Daniel Sullivan would have served the play better had he pared down some of the lengthier scenes.
We are in the midst of a theater scene filled with lengthy plays: 16 plays were almost 3 hours or or more this season. Most, like Angels in America, were nevertheless able to hold the rapt attention of the audience. Not so with Saint Joan.