Broadway Review: “Saint Joan” at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Broadway Review: “Saint Joan” at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Closed Sunday June 10, 2018)
Written by Bernard Shaw
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“No sir: we are afraid of you; but she puts courage into us. She really doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything. Perhaps you could frighten her, sir.” – Robert de Baudricourt’s Steward, Scene 1, “Saint Joan”

George Bernard Shaw has had a successful run on Broadway in the 2017-2018 season. Shaw’s “Pygmalion” lies at the heart of Lerner and Lowe’s “My Fair Lady” currently on at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont Theater and Shaw’s engaging “Saint Joan” is currently on at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. In addition to his “appearance” on Broadway, three of the iconic Irish playwright’s plays are included in this summer’s Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

Before “Saint Joan” closes on its scheduled June 10, 2018 date, it is important to remember the significance of Shaw’s 1923 play in the current Broadway season. “Saint Joan” received a single Tony Award nomination for Condola Rashad’s brilliant performance in the title role: Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play. Additionally, the production featured a stunning set by Scott Pask and highly effective lighting by Justin Townsend and sound design by Obadiah Eaves. Most important, however, are the rich enduring questions Shaw raises in his drama.

In his parsing of the history of Joan of Arc from the castle of Vaucouleurs to the fictional epilogue in 1456 in the bedchamber of King Charles the Seventh of France (Adam Chanler-Berat), Bernard Shaw grapples with questions as relevant in the 15th century as in the 21st century. Is war even an option to solve international differences or threats? If so, what circumstances warrant a declaration of war? Is fear a way to govern? What role should one’s religion or faith play in making political decisions? What is a hero? How was Joan of Arc a hero? What role does sexual status play in the ability to make military decisions, including serving in the armed services? Has the “church” become an unreliable moral barometer?

Under Daniel Sullivan’s guiding hand, the cast addresses Shaw’s concerns and themes with welcomed rigor. Some might find the length of the monologues to be challenging; however, each of these is filled with interesting historical detail that adds to the understanding of the importance of Joan of Arc and her contemporaries and the complicated matrix of establishing national identity. These “arguments” are of the utmost importance in current conversations around America’s national identity and place in the global political community. Shaw’s blending of present, past, and future in the final scene of “Saint Joan” reminds us of Shaw’s willingness to “experiment” in tackling historical themes.

Condola Rashad explores the layers of Saint Joan’s character with a finesse that leaves little of “The Maid’s) personality undefined. The journey from soldier to prisoner to saint is beatified by Ms. Rashad’s authentic performance. The entire cast supports that remarkable transformation with consummate skill and grace.