- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2005

A typical production of George Bernard Shaw’s 1923 play “Saint Joan” demands the commitment of both intellect and gluteus muscles. Watching the four-hour, discourse-laden play can feel like being burned at the stake, one smoldering twig at a time.

Director Christopher Hayes uncovered a never-produced, Shaw-penned movie script of the play, paring down the verbiage to a fighting weight of two hours. His streamlined new Olney Theatre Center production marches swiftly toward Joan’s fate before bogging down in the last act.

It might help to bone up on the Hundred Years War before attending. Mr. Shaw’s original play goes into the historical, political and religious forces behind the war between England and France, as well as delving into Joan of Arc’s fluctuating reputation over the centuries. The Olney cut, however, may baffle those whose knowledge of Joan begins and ends with Ingrid Bergman’s performance in the 1948 movie.

Non-History Channel buffs can still find plenty to savor in Mr. Hayes’ brisk, contemporary staging. James Wolk’s set and atmospheric lighting convey the dank of the 15th century with marvelous economy. The main set piece is a prominent flight of stone and wood stairs, which alternately serve as a courtroom, an altar, a royal chamber, the French battlefields and, ultimately, Joan’s pyre. Sekula Sinadinovski’s detailed costumes further delineate the majestically attired rulers, judges and pampered priests from the lower classes.

Born in 1412, Joan of Arc (Jennie Eisenhower) was a farm girl from Domremy, who began having visions at age 12. A few years later, the “voices” of St. Catherine, St. Theresa and Michael the Archangel told her to command the French troops and throw out the English. It is God’s will, the voices said, that countries should be separate and speak their own native language. Her campaign was largely successful, as many English positions fell under her command, including Rheims. This allowed Charles, the Dauphin (Josh Lefkowitz), to be crowned Charles VII, king of France.

But “no good deed goes unpunished,” as the French adage has it, and, once crowned, Charles turned his back on her, as did the captains and soldiers who fought so willingly for her cause. After her capture by the Burgundian forces, Joan was transferred to the English for a fee, and tried in 1431. Convicted on a “cross-dressing” charge and declared a heretic, she was burned at the stake. She was canonized in 1920.

While ample material on Joan of Arc exists — Voltaire, Schiller, Brecht, Christine de Pisan, Shakespeare, Jean Anouilh and Maxwell Anderson are among those who’ve immortalized the martyr — Mr. Shaw took his inspiration from two unusual sources. His Joan is a composite of Mary Hankinson, a hearty and forthright member of the Fabian Society, and the writer and explorer T.E. Lawrence (yes, of Arabia), on whom he based her youthful charisma and political naivete.

Miss Eisenhower deftly portrays Joan’s galloping enthusiasm and guileless bluster — she tells it like it is without regard for social niceties. She is so spritely that the play suffers from a noticeable lack of energy when she is offstage.

There are numerous scenes of powerful men sitting around pondering “How do we solve a problem like Joan?” and the dynamics of the exchanges are often hampered by the production’s stiff, presentational style. Some actors break out of the show’s confines with striking performances, including Peter Kybart as the droll and fervent Inquisitor, Stephen F. Schmidt as the coolly superior Earl of Warwick, and Jeffries Thaiss’ lively turns in the dual roles of Dunois and the Canon de Courcelles.

The modernized “Saint Joan” works well, until the ending, when Mr. Hayes includes Mr. Shaw’s pedantic afterword, where the beatified Joan holds a prolonged chin-wag with the popes, lawyers, captains and royals who knew her, including the common soldier who handed her a cross made of sticks while she waited to fry. It’s like an episode of “This Is Your Afterlife,” where even Mr. Shaw appears with his insights on Joan’s character and place in history.

This final scene forces you to question why a play slashed in half would still contain this lugubrious coda. You have to squelch a snort when the production ends in a slide show, with Joan marveling over her statue in front of Rheims Cathedral and her impending sainthood. “Me, a saint?” she burbles, as if just crowned dairy queen at the county fair.

Humanizing an inaccessible legend for a contemporary audience is one thing; trivializing her is another.

***

WHAT: “Saint Joan” by George Bernard Shaw

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through March 20.

TICKETS: $15 to $39

PHONE: 301/924-3400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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