On the surface, George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan" is a great choice to produce now. In a sense, Joan of Arc was the ultimate feminist in an ultra-patriarchal world, and she certainly paid the price for her convictions. But while the Manhattan Theatre Club's timely selection of this great play raises high expectations, the production falls a bit short.
The story mostly focuses on the last two years of Joan's life, from age 17 when she claimed voices from God instructed her to lead the French army under siege against the British during their 100 Years War. Despite Joan's victories on the battlefield, she was branded a witch and put on trial for heresy and burned at the stake.
Shaw's play is an engrossing deconstruction of the martyred Joan at the hands of misguided, misogynistic men. And yet as he saw it, the conflict was never so clear cut. Even today, someone so intensely possessed of a spiritual calling would have a hard time being taken seriously.
Director Daniel Sullivan does a fine job balancing the disparate motivations. But the nearly three-hour play feels awfully long, in part because the staging is lackluster. And the overpowering set dominated by suspended gold tubes doesn't help.
Condola Rashad as Joan leads the large, mostly male cast. And they're all terrific in their own way. So good to see Patrick Page, John Glover, Jack Davenport, Adam Chanler-Berat, Robert Stanton, and Walter Bobbie share a stage. But the acting styles are jarringly inconsistent.
And as for Rashad's Joan, she is a young woman on a mission with a Christ-like serenity, and it's quite touching. Only in the climactic trial scene do we get a sense of fury toward her interrogators. It's a respectable performance of a very demanding role — just not quite the transcendent portrait the role demands.
Even a less than perfect production of "Saint Joan" must be applauded. This 100-year-old play about a nearly 600-year-old episode in history reminds us how far we have yet to go.