A shift in perspective makes a world of difference. Where and how we choose to look can radically alter how we make sense of ourselves and everything else. That’s the sweeping scope of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s intimate drama Apologia, titled after the memoir of its central character, an art historian played with cunning grace by Stockard Channing. Downtown, Jane Anderson performs a different pivot in her new play Mother of the Maid, turning our historical attention to Joan of Arc’s family life, and particularly her mom, played with ramrod forbearance by Glenn Close.
That each of these plays provide such venerable stars with plum roles into which to sink their teeth is a delightful bonus, no doubt (and likely why the plays have arrived in New York in the first place). But it’s in aligning our point of view with that of sharp, extraordinary women, wise in more than just years, that the plays succeed in disrupting how we look at history and our own place in the world.
Early on in Apologia, a Roundabout Theatre Company production that opened off-Broadway October 16, Channing’s character reins in her patience to explain how Giotto revolutionized Western religion. He helped spread faith to the masses by allowing viewers to see themselves reflected in his grittier paintings of Christian idols. The scholar’s son (Hugh Dancy) has brought an American girlfriend (Talene Monahon) home to the English countryside to meet mom, a proud and somewhat cynical U.S. expat herself.
Her defense of the Gothic artist, in response to an inane question by a new girlfriend, distills the insightful thrust of Campbell’s elegant and deceptively simple play. Everyone has their own concept of value — be it based on money and fame, or on faith, intellect, or artistic achievement. It’s different for every character on stage as it is for each member of the audience. Our individual conceptions of value reflexively dictate how we measure our own — drama is born in the discrepancies.
Anderson’s view of 15th-century France focuses on the Arc family’s more earthly values, rather than the divine crusade of its ‘Maid’, Joan. Primarily known for her screen work (most recently The Wife, also starring Close), Anderson renders an epic figure on an intimate canvas in this off-Broadway production that opened tonight at the Public Theater. Before her visions of Saint Catherine led her into battle against the English, we find this Joan (Grace Van Patten) picking burrs out of wool with her Ma (Close), in a dialect that more closely resembles the rural American West than the North of France.
Joan has been no stranger to New York stages recently; a revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan went up this spring, and a disastrous musical from David Byrne also bowed at the Public last year. By assuming the perspective of Joan’s mother and grounding the story in more mundane realities, Anderson makes Joan’s journey seem all the more remarkable, though the most sensational moments take place off stage. It is perhaps easier to sympathize with a mother’s pride and agony witnessing her child’s rise and fall than it is put ourselves in Joan’s shoes. Not surprisingly, Close has no trouble galvanizing the story around her character’s perspective with a striking performance. Five hundred years on, there’s little new to discover about Joan’s story but to see it as a human one.
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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar
(photos: joan marcus)