Was she crazy? Was she sent from God? Was she a heretic? Was she a martyr? A saint?
Those are some of the enigmas we ponder when considering Joan of Arc.
She is a saint now, thanks to a retrial years after she was burned at the stake as a result of a conspiracy of powerful men representing both sacred and secular interests.
The 7-year-old Winding Road Theater Ensemble is currently running George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, adapted well by playwright and founding member Toni Press-Coffman. The play gives us a context in which to wonder about Joan and the conundrum she and those who dealt with her had to come to terms with. Some of the issues these warring folks in England and France grappled with we see echoed today. Many, it seems, are part of our nature.
Into what is known as The Hundred Years' War, (from 1337-1453) between France and England comes a young woman, a peasant shepherd girl about 19 years old, Joan, (Lucille Petty) who says she hears the voices of St. Margaret and St. Catherine. They have given her instructions to do battle with the English who are occupying much of France. Well, this is quite preposterous, of course. But peculiar things start happening when she's around. The hens that had not been laying suddenly became quite fecund and stubborn winds blowing in the wrong direction for a maritime assault abruptly change their direction. Well, the obvious explanation: It must be the presence of Joan. So the French captains grant her men's clothes and armor. She becomes a trusted leader and she delivers the town of Orleans from the English.
But Joan has enemies, some Englishmen and church officials, who think she just has to be a witch. The church is the voice of God to the world. It is the supreme authority. Thus, the voices she hears must be those of demons. And she won't wear women's clothing! So it becomes clear that power and politics play a crucial part in all this. What Joan encourages among the people threatens the feudal system and questions the power of the church. So she is tried and convicted and burned to death as a heretic, refusing to recant her certainty of who she is and what she has been called to do.
Winding Road does a good job telling us this story. The cast—all male save for The Maid—is respectable (although director Susan Arnold has chosen to double-cast most of the roles with the same actors, which causes a bit of confusion). But this is Joan's play, and Petty gives us a lovely reading. Joan's strength, faith and humility, even her conviction that she hears voices instructing her, captivate us, assuring us her actions are never motivated by personal desires. Her transparency and vulnerability sway our sympathy in her unwavering convictions.
Arnold uses a simple set to tell the story. It moves briskly, without frills. She does make an unfortunate choice to use sound to underscore the remarkable speech that Joan gives near the end of the play. Unfortunately, the music's volume is overwhelming. Its mere presence is so distracting that we lose this precious moment.
The production does not try to make this a play about the sanity of hearing voices or women's power threatening men. Rather, Arnold chooses to allow us to see Shaw's attempt to ponder the sticky results of humankind's need for institutions that serve its spiritual cravings, and the far-reaching influence and power of those institutions too often succumbing to the opportunistic abuse of their power.
Interestingly, Live Theatre Workshop opened a play this last weekend that really couldn't be further in tone and place from Saint Joan, but in which these same themes reside at the heart of the piece.
God's Man in Texas is a comedy which exploits the phenomenon of so-called "mega" churches, the success of which depends less on doing good works than on television ratings and money collected from followers far and wide. The ostensible purpose may be to save souls, but the means to success represents something far wider to its leaders.
Eighty-one-year-old pastor of The Rock Baptist Church (Michael Woodson) shows no signs of slowing down, but the leaders of the church are beginning to plan for his eventual demise. They are executing "a parade of pastors," young up-and-coming preachers with the drawing power that Dr. Gottschall (and I do believe there is a pun there) has had in building a massive enterprise, with schools, bowling alleys, restaurants and other locations of family-oriented fun. One young minister, Jerry (Stephen Frankenfield) who has done well in building a large congregation in San Antonio seems to be the front runner for co-pastor and heir apparent, but Gottschall begins to think he's being squeezed out. And he doesn't like that one bit.
The play is a rather flimsy one, but it does deliver quite a few legitimate laughs from the dueling preachers. But the real comic force is provided by Keith Wick's portrayal of Hugo Taney, a one-time sinner of impressive proportions who has found a home and a purpose in the Rock Baptist church. It's Wick that really rocks.
Director Rhonda Hallquist has done a solid job piecing the multiple scenes together, and the set is one of the best I've seen at LTW. But the show seemed a little wobbly on its feet opening night. In particular, the feud between the ministers didn't seem to have a clearly developed rhythm and arc. And sometimes it's a temptation for the preachers to play the caricature of these salesmen of God, rather than real people.
It happens often, especially with comedy, that a show really gels when the cast gets accustomed to what an audience contributes to the experience. My hunch is that this will be the case here.