SAINT JOAN by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Jackie Maxwell (Shaw). At the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Runs in rep to October 27. $45-$95. Rating: NNN
The Shaw Festival's Saint Joan places the French hero among the list of the most holy, but the production isn't as immaculate as it might be.
The work is one of Shaw's most compelling, in part because of the central character, whose passion drives the play along.
Tara Rosling's Joan has all the necessary fire and certitude combined with a sense of the teenager's innocence. She wins over doubter after doubter, from the simple soldiers and lower lords who follow her into battle to the Dauphin himself, who believes in her powers as long as she fights the English invaders and wins him the throne he won't strive for on his own.
It's the plotters against Joan who are the fascinating characters, though. The play's most striking scene, set in the English camp, has the Earl of Warwick (Blair Williams) and the Bishop of Beauvais (Ben Carlson) connive to bring the Maid down, for they realize that a figure like Joan, who listens directly to her heavenly voices, means a loss of power for both state and Church. Warwick rightly sees Joan as the exponent of a new movement, Protest-antism.
Williams is the most resonant, suave and practical of villains, and the cold, sour, spiderlike Carlson makes a fitting companion. There's equally good work from Norman Browning as the Archbishop of Rheims, foxy, tight-lipped and formal in contrast to the zealous Joan, and Ric Reid as the hairsplitting Inquisitor at Joan's trial.
But not every element works in director Jackie Maxwell's production, which intentionally mixes costumes from different periods to emphasize the timelessness of Shaw's message. She places part of the epilogue at the start of the show, reducing some of the build-up of Joan's character, and her storytelling sometimes needs tightened dramatic pacing. The arguments are clear in the wonderfully written trial scene, but the presentation occasionally lacks tension.
Still, Rosling, almost glowing with an inner light, holds the show together. Increasingly isolated in a male world where she's allowed so little freedom, this Joan rises above the men's petty fighting to become a mythic figure for the ages.