Good intentions that pave the way to hell doom the Maid, Jeanne d'Arc, to the burning fires of sanctimonious and political hypocrisy in George Bernard Shaw's masterpiece "Saint Joan," on stage at The Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger in Washington, D.C., through Jan. 26.
Considered by many to be "the greatest play in English since Shakespeare," Shaw's impressive philosophical work combines the Irishman's ironic wit with powerful dramatic force. The central theme compellingly depicts the individual's cry for spiritual freedom that transcends the Church, the law, politics and the secular in the hopes of creating a better world.
The Shakespeare Theatre's production, directed by Sarah Pia Anderson, follows all the proper mores of good classical theater. There are no theatrical innovations or technological inroads, but the three-hour play moves along with an intensity and prowess that mines the gold of Shaw's immortal lines.
The play relates how an ignorant peasant girl claiming to hear the voices of saints is obsessed with what she feels is her God-given right to defend the French from the English invaders. With her enormous bounty of energy and blind conviction of "heaven-sent righteousness" she convinces the clergy, the feudal lords and the Dauphin (soon to be King Charles VII) that she is capable of leading the country's great army against the detested enemy.
The French are looking for a miracle, and she conveniently provides one. Dressed as a man in soldier's garb and brandishing a sword, she is triumphant on the battlefield. Joan crowns the Dauphin and tells all factions of society, "We are subjects to our King in Heaven" (no one else) and urges that all materialistic things be given back to God.
This strikes fear into the souls of those comfortably ensconced in the traditions of their various power roles. They want to burn her at the stake for their own self interests and condemn her for daring to go beyond her role as a female in a male dominated society.
After calling upon her God and the all-consuming flames have reduced her frail body to ashes, it is interesting to note that Joan's noble heart (whether factual or symbolic) would not burn.
The sterling cast features good performances by Baltimoreans Richard Dix as Robert de Baudricourt and Richard Pilcher as Bertrand de Poulengey and the Promotor (the prosecutor at the trial).
Outstanding are Jack Ryland's slick, cynical interpretation of Richard de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick; Jonathan Lutz as Archbishop of Rheims; Edward Gero as Dunois; Emery Battis as the Inquisitor; and Michael Early as Brother Martin Ladvenu (Joan's defender).
Although obviously an experienced and gifted actress, Gail Grate as Joan disappoints. Technically competent Grate lacks the fire and the passion the role demands. That fanatical driving force, the charismatic presence, the driven inner glow, the shining innocence of ignorance is missing from the actress' characterization.
Donald Eastman is responsible for the fine period set suggestions and Barbra Kravitz designed the authentic-looking costumes.
Overall, the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger's production of Shaw's classic, "Saint Joan," is excellent traditional theater. It is the last show the company will produce at the East Capitol Street location before moving into its larger and more elegant quarters at The Lansburgh, 450 7th St., N.W., for the Feb. 25 production of "Much Ado About Nothing."