The Shaw heroine most likely to capture audience hearts this Broadway season is Eliza Doolittle, who comes by way of Lerner and Loewe. But a few blocks away, his greatest heroine—Saint Joan—is holding forth in what is also Shaw’s finest play (and surely, one of the finest of the 20th Century). Even in a compromised production—which, alas, director Daniel Sullivan’s is—it should not be missed.
If you don’t know the work, it will likely come as a surprise that Shaw, who rejected organized religion, would not only write a play about Joan of Arc, but specifically title it Saint Joan, and treat his principal character with a sense of reverence. But Shaw’s Joan is a divining rod for some favorite themes, standing as she does the center of a power clash of politics, religion, and nationalism—one that she navigates fearlessly.
That she fails spectacularly we all know, of course. It’s a major focus for Shaw, as is—in a fabulously sly epilogue, steeped in irony—the ultimate redemption of her reputation. Even Joan herself knew the likelihood she would fail, a point she addresses with the cunning of born power-player:
I will go out now to the common people, and let the love in their eyes comfort me for the hate in yours. You will all be glad to see me burnt; but if I go through the fire I shall go through it to their hearts for ever and ever. And so, God be with me!
I like to think it’s that woman that Shaw fell in love with—Joan, the born risk-taker. The Manhattan Theatre Club production of Shaw’s play, alas, keeps it safe and small scale. With this go-big-or-go-home masterpiece, that’s just not good enough.
Responsibility for this moderately enjoyable Saint Joan—whichnever gets near enough to greatness—rests mostly with director Daniel Sullivan, who continues a pattern of delivering fluidly competent productions that lack intellectual rigor and specific insights. It didn’t matter so much in his Glengarry Glen Ross or Doubt, both of which had further compensation in their stellar casts. But it matters here. To be fair, Sullivan has his moments—when fast tempos and comedy are called for (and they are more often than you might expect) he delivers.
But an unambitious Saint Joan is really no Saint Joan at all, and everything that follows from Sullivan’s lackluster directing is, similarly, not ambitious enough. Scott Pask’s scenery is handsome but minimal, and the central design idea—rows of hanging cylinders that suggest a grand pipe organ—ultimately distracts and limits the action. Veteran costume designer Jane Greenwood seems confounded by Shaw’s mix of comic and dramatic tone, and offers a mass of uncoordinated colors and styles, with a few key wardrobe pieces unfortunately evoking Spamalot.
Among the acting ensemble, pride of place goes to Jack Davenport (Warwick), who most completely masters the essential Shavian skill of investing long, long passages of complicated dialogue with seemingly effortless wit. Close behind him are Adam Chanler-Berat, appealingly droll as the Dauphin; John Glover as the dryly funny Archbishop; and Daniel Sunjata as the dashing Bertrand de Poulangey. Seen next to them, Walter Bobbie’s Archbishop is merely prosaic. Some actors who play multiples roles are better in one than another. Patrick Page is terrific as the Inquisitor but hardly registers as Robert de Baudricourt. Robert Stanton is excellent as de Stogumber, but makes little of his comic turns as the Squire and the English soldier. (Cast doubling in Saint Joan is inevitable—there are 40-odd characters—but I wish the forces here were larger. There’s something about seeing one small girl in the midst of 20-odd men that resounds as deeply as Shaw’s dialogue.)
About that small girl. The actress playing Joan is (after Shaw, of course) what we mainly come for. Other characters are more intellectually provocative, but it is she who must command our hearts. For all her considerable skill, that’s precisely what Condola Rashad fails to do. Literally every moment in her performance looks calculated for maximum effect—the tilt of the head, the raising and lowering of the eyes, the often archly-inflected line readings, the unplaceable accent. Rashad has considerable talent, and here she scores some good points as the warrior Joan. But she fails to suggest her naturalness and charm. More damagingly, the essence of all great Joans—a quiet sense of inner light—eludes her.
Will I ever see my ideal Saint Joan? I doubt it. There are just too many things to get right. Bedlam’s acclaimed recent production, full of quirky and clever touches, was sometimes wonderful, but ultimately overly deconstructed and self-conscious for me.
At the other end of the spectrum, 25 years ago, the previous Broadway revival directed by Michael Langham was a dull affair; I doubt its solemn, tiptoeing take would pass muster today. But it had a more intriguing cast than the current one, especially in the radiant Joan of Maryann Plunkett, a sensational performance to set beside the storied ones of Katharine Cornell and Siobhan McKenna. And for all its stodge, Langham and company captured the sweep and scale of Saint Joan. Here, Sullivan’s production is leaner, faster, funnier, and probably more suited to current tastes. Alas, the grandeur—like the heroine—goes up in smoke.
Saint Joan plays at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through June 10. For more information, visit the Manhattan Theatre Club website.