Glenn Close Photo by Brigitte Lacombe
Raising an exceptional child is a uniquely challenging experience, one that's as problematic as it is rewarding. Parents must contend with issues of safety while ensuring that their children are receiving the appropriate support for their abilities. In the new Off-Broadway play Mother of the Maid, playwright Jane Anderson juxtaposes current questions surrounding this subject by placing it in the context of the story of Joan of Arc’s mother. Though Joan’s story has been told in countless variations, this play focuses on the perspective of matriarch Isabelle, a practical, hard-working, God-fearing peasant woman whose faith is tested as she deals with the mystifying, tragic journey of her odd and extraordinary daughter.
“When I was a young girl I was always a fan of Joan of Arc and the romance and strength of her,” says Anderson. “I wanted to be Joan of Arc. I wanted to wear boys clothing and run away. I think many young women have this fascination with her because she symbolizes getting out of the house and doing wildly important things and being famous and powerful.” At the age of 19 the actor and writer dropped out of college and left home in California to pursue her dream of being an artist in New York. However, it wasn’t until Anderson became a mother that she realized how difficult her choices must have been for her own mother, in turn compelling her to write Mother of the Maid. “I found it so heartbreaking because I am a mother. I have a son, which is a little different than your view of a daughter because culturally you feel less protected. You want to push your boy out into the world and you don’t quite worry that your son could be physically hurt the way your daughter could be. In a way, this is a peon of appreciation to my parents for releasing me to the greater world.”
Though Anderson (who is known for penning projects such as the Emmy Award-winning Olive Kitteredge and this year’s The Wife) was not officially classified as being gifted, she recalls being seen as a gifted artist in her mother’s eyes. “Everyone wants to think their child is special, and they exaggerate it; my mother certainly exaggerated it,” she says of how she came to Isabelle Arc’s story. “[In Maid] Isabelle is afraid for her daughter, but also thrilled that she has a gifted daughter who can go out in the larger world and do the things she wishes she herself could do.” Anderson chose to set the play at the height of the Hundred Years’ War to heighten the circumstances. “Isabelle is an illiterate, poor woman who has never gone beyond ten miles from her home because there was this constant, horrible danger of raids coming in. Isabelle talks about her very dear best friend and her friend’s family who were hideously slaughtered by soldiers, so not only has she lost the one person she could have companionship with, but it was done in such a horrible way. Placing this play at a time of extreme danger also raises the stakes.”
Maid reflects the difficulties of raising an exceptional teenager in 2018 in the fact that it explores how parents worry for their children when they are surrounded by people telling them that their children are gifts to the world. Anderson says that she “riffs a bit” on the celebrity that surrounds gifted teenagers who become athletic stars or film stars and what it does to parents who worry for their children.
“When Joan tells Isabelle that Saint Catherine and God have told her she’s going to save France, Isabelle’s initial reaction is to slap it out of her because it’s a terrifying thing. Jacques Arc, her father, was so horrified by this notion that his girl would run off with soldiers that he told her brothers and his sons, ‘We’re going to drown her in the pond.’” Anderson points to Jacques as being an important balance to Isabelle because she is deeply religious and realizes that “everyone at court thinks Joan is special, so Joan must not be able to help it.” At the same time, Isabelle is astounded that her daughter is being admired by the elite, and the play mirrors what this does to families in the present. “There’s a certain innocence that Isabelle has that then gets knocked out of her. Jacques sees that the church manipulates people like them, and Joan’s brother follows on her coattails and uses her fame to further himself.”
One might argue that today’s parents are more excited at the prospect of their children being gifted or famous, thus garnering attention. Anderson agrees that this is the case because there is no apparent danger. However, she stresses that there is a psychological danger in a child rocketing into fame. “It can destroy an immature soul. When the world tells them they’re brilliant, they’re swept up into the public relations. This play is definitely a metaphor for that.”
After shooting The Wife with Glenn Close, a film based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer, Anderson sent the actor the script for Maid and she was immediately on board. Ironically, the film features Close’s real-life daughter, Annie Starke. The 30-year-old actress has largely been kept out of the limelight. “Glenn is utterly breathtaking in The Wife,” Anderson says of her now go-to leading lady. “She plays Joan Castleman, a character who is very different from Isabelle Arc because Joan is a highly intellectual, sophisticated, urban woman who is quite shy and restrained in a very waspy way.” Close doesn’t have screen-time with Starke, as her daughter actually portrays a younger version of Castleman. However, Anderson feels that Close’s own life and her relationship with her daughter contributes to the role of Isabelle on a primal level. “[Close] has a daughter that she deeply loves, and I know as a mother myself that you pull from that deep, basic love for your child and a need to protect and make sure that that child will never be harmed,” she says. “You want your daughter to grow up to be happy and outlive you.”
Close is no stranger to playing matriarchs across the spectrum, from the heroic Jenny Fields in The World According to Garp, to conniving lawyer Patty Hewes in Damages. “Glenn is a very earthy person,” says Anderson, attempting to explain why Close is adept at playing flawed women. “It could be the structure of her face. In The Wife she’s an intellectual woman but she’s shy and has restrained her deeper, angrier impulses her whole life. In Maid, Isabelle Arc is a very tender, naïve woman who is also very tough and strong, but there is nothing manipulative about her. She is guileless until circumstances force her to see what the world is doing to her daughter. That is not Glenn at all.” Who is Close? “Glenn loves her dogs, she has a place up in the country in Connecticut, loves to weed whack, put galoshes on, and garden. There’s not a vain bone in her body. She’s a very warm person.”
Maid marks Close’s return to the stage after having last been seen as the eccentric, insane Norma Desmond in Broadway’s Sunset Boulevard. “This is the absolute opposite,” says Anderson of Close’s work in Maid. “[Norma] was all about maintaining the artifice of youth. Isabelle is all about living in the real world, and has probably never looked in a mirror because she doesn’t have one. It’s going to be astounding.” Also differing from Close’s last theatrical work in New York–the stage. The Anspacher Theater at the Public is very intimate, and the audience will be surrounding Close in stadium seating. “They will be so close to her and her fury, grief and hope,” says Anderson.
Jane Anderson Photo by Corey Nickols
“The medieval period is very meaningful to Close,” Anderson remarks when considering how the actress has approached playing Isabelle. “She has been doing an enormous amount of research, especially about her religiosity. A woman like her is just plunged into church and believes everything the church says. We have talked about that a lot, because eventually in the play she feels betrayed by the church and her God because of what’s been done to her daughter.” Anderson relates the way the court and church use Joan as a symbol only to discard her and ultimately burn her alive, to “public relation machines and handlers of gifted children.”
“Gifted children need to be reminded of the ordinary,” she says of how parents can find environments for their children that are safe and understood. “The child needs to be reminded of what basically counts in life, which is family, deep friendship, a meal around the table, and being advised by people who don’t need something from them. I think a healthy dose of canniness and cynicism is needed. Part of what brings my Joan Arc down is that she buys into it and she gets arrogant and missteps.” Anderson remarks that for all of Joan’s goodness, she was still 19-years-old and crazy with power. “We know how impulsive we are when we’re 19. Our judgment isn’t fully in place until we are in our mid-20s. Joan was this impulsive, fierce young woman, and she felt that God was behind her. It got her in a lot of trouble.”
As for Isabelle, what she wanted for her child is similar to what any parent would want, whether or not their child is gifted. “Isabelle realized she didn’t want her daughter to be confined to this tiny town picking burrs out of wool and having a bunch of babies,” says Anderson. “Even though my mother was ambitious for me, she also hoped I would get married and give her a bunch of grandbabies… and chat with her. Many mothers want their daughters by their side to just do the tasks and to chat and to have that lovely companionship. Joan is not that type of girl.” Anderson easily pulled this theme from her own memories. “I know my mom wanted to bond with me,” she says. “She did on an artistic level, but she couldn’t on other levels. As a son or daughter you don’t fulfill everything that your parents want. You are your own person.”
Anderson says that parents taking in Maid will be overwhelmed with compassion for the characters, and will certainly be able to relate on some level. “I hope the play moves people deeply, and that sons and daughters will understand what their ambitions mean and what it does to their parents. I hope I give people just a sliver of light when it comes to moving on from grief.”
MOTHER OF THE MAID is at the Public Theater through Sunday, December 23rd.
Iris Wiener is an entertainment writer and theatre critic. Visit her at IrisWiener.com
Mother of the Maid Playbill