Tense, Gripping ‘Saint Joan’ at 2nd Story

saint joanDuring World War I, Joan of Arc was a legendary figure in the lives of the French soldiers, who wore medals sporting her face around their necks and tucked her picture into the pockets of their uniforms. At the time, Joan had not yet been canonized as a saint, but was known as a woman scorned by the Catholic Church hierarchy in 1430. Branded a heretic, Joan was put to death by an unforgiving world. It took nearly 500 years before the honor of sainthood was bestowed upon her. Playwright George Bernard Shaw’s examination of Joan’s life, Saint Joan, opened at Warren’s 2nd Story Theatre on November 15 and runs through December 15.

Director Ed Shea crafted a tense and powerful production about a woman who challenged beliefs about religion and gender roles who was brought to life in a set design, by Trevor Elliott, that was spare and foreboding.When the show opens, Joan (Valerie Westgate) is a modest peasant girl who works as a maid for a squire (Eric Behr), but has her sights set on aiding the French army in their battle against the English. Joan trims her flowing locks into a boyish bowl cut and tells everyone she hears voices from God. Joan truly believes she is doing what God intends, describing herself at one point as “an angel dressed as a soldier.” She counsels the weak and vain Dauphin, Charles VII (Rico Lanni), telling him the voices have told her to help him become a true king by rallying his troops and driving out the English occupiers, thereby restoring France to greatness. Not long after, Peter Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais (David De Almo), as well as the Archbishop (Jim Sullivan) speculate about whether Joan is a sorceress or a heretic.

Joan is eventually captured, imprisoned, and put on trial for heresy. The Inquisitor (Kevin Broccoli), the Bishop of Beauvais, and church officials on both sides of the trial debate her alleged crimes against the church. They question her for dressing as a man and not as a woman. She is accused of having “a diabolical pride.” Joan disavows any malicious intent, insisting to her tormentors she is a “faithful child of the church” and claims to be no wiser than God. Saint Joan is about the power of the individual against the power of an institution, as well as the role women were expected to play in society. As the center of the action, Joan is seen alternately as a heroine and a witch, always having to justify her behavior to skeptics who threaten to literally burn her at the stake.

Saint Joan concludes with an epilogue set 25 years after her execution. Joan has been cleared of heresy in a new trial. She laments that mankind will never be able to accept its saints. Valerie Westgate proves to be up to the challenge, portraying a steely, determined woman who was brave in battle and challenged the gender stereotypes of French society in the early 15th century. The large ensemble gives all the performers a chance to shine. De Almo, Sullivan, Broccoli, Behr, and Lanni bring plenty of realism to their roles. Shea ably filled in for Tom O’Donnell as Richard de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. Shaw’s dialogue is richly textured and captures the hysteria of the clergy in a series of withering monologues. They are not evil men, however. They are men who are just frightened of a woman who challenges their beliefs.

2nd Story Theatre is at 28 Market St., Warren. Box Office: 401-247-4200 boxoffice@2ndstorytheatre.com. The website is 2ndstorytheatre.com

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