by Hugh Hunter
Written just three years after her canonization, “Saint Joan” (1923) is full of George Bernard Shaw’s usual didactic purpose. Yet this talky drama now running at Quintessence Theatre rivets your attention so fully it becomes its own miracle.
We watch Joan fall prey to powerful men in medieval times. But in his preface Shaw argues that the same essential event could happen in any historical era. He recovers his irrepressible wit in time to write a satirical, time-shifting epilogue to show Joan’s fate is what always awaits a true saint.
Of all the actresses who have played Joan — Uta Hagen and Lynn Redgrave, among others — I doubt that anyone ever topped the performance of Leigha Kato. It helps that she is young enough to really look like a 19-year-old.
Her Joan is a bracing presence. With ebullience and vision, she wins over the discouraged French and leads them to victory. But the same honest joy makes it impossible for her to grasp the workings of power.
All the men who surround her are privately afraid of this spirited girl. The august clerics, Peter Cauchon (Gregory Isaac), Chaplain John de Stogumber (Sean Close) and Inquisitor (John Basiulis), fear that her individual conscience threatens church authority.
The secular Earl of Warwick (Josh Carpenter) frets Joan will bring down feudalism. Even early supporters like the wimpy Dauphin (Andrew Betz) and brave commander Dunois (Alan Brincks) simply abandon Joan when she no longer proves useful.
Rebecca Wright directs a fine production. The stage is a long runaway with moveable chairs; she relies on lights, smoky haze and musical sounds for atmosphere. A collection of colorful robes help actors play multiple characters (costumer, Nikki Delhomme).
But Wright does more, turning costume into metaphor. In their uniform craving for control, these loquacious leaders are just like their clothes, full of different colors but of the same cut and form. It is a tribute to fine acting that the men still emerge as vivid individuals.
Wearing a simple peasant tunic, Joan strips them bare with her honest presence. In her innocence, she is always embarrassing them without knowing it. When she hears their verdict, it is painful to hear her cry out like a horribly injured child.
“Saint Joan” is not a typical tragedy because Joan has no real flaw. Nor are any of the men genuine villains; they are merely caught up in their own social circumstances. In staying true to herself, Joan exposes their smallness virtually by accident.
In this play Shaw was at the top of his game. There are historical records of the heresy trial, and Shaw stays true to the Saint Joan legend as an extraordinary medieval event. Then, with an ironic twist we see how the extraordinary still glitters beneath the surfaces of ordinary experience.
Quintessence Theatre is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. “Saint Joan” will run in repertory with “Dr. Faustus” through April 24. Reservations at 215-987-4450.