“An angel dressed as a soldier.” “Some cracked country lass.” “Sorceress.” “Slut.” The Maid of Orleans is called many things in Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, by many men, but they all seem to agree on one thing: “There’s something about her.”
There’s something about the woman playing her, for sure. At 31, Condola Rashad (daughter of The Cosby Show’s Phylicia and sportscaster Ahmad) is the youngest actress to ever receive three featured Tony nominations — for Stick Fly, The Trip to Bountiful, and A Doll’s House. (She also currently appears as a U.S. attorney on Showtime’s Billions, and as the wife of Chiwetel Edjiofor’s conflicted Pentacostal preacher in the Netflix biopic Come Sunday).
In Saint, Rashad’s fifth trip to Broadway, she works hard to put her own imprint on an icon worn smooth by six centuries and countless iterations. For the first half of the play’s nearly three-hour runtime, her wide-eyed Joan comes on less like a legendary warrior than a kind of willful spiritual naif, all beatific smiles and hands held up to the sky, as if constantly reaching up to ask God for a piggyback ride.
And the Almighty does deliver, at least at first. Nearly every powerful man who doubts her — generals, cardinals, even the future king of France — is swiftly converted, awed by her serene self-assurance, the specificity of her vision, and her seeming ability to make barren hens lay eggs and the wind shift from east to west. Most of all, they love her because she wins, defeating the reviled English army in battles that happen almost entirely offstage.
The 1923 vintage of Shaw’s play hardly shows its age in Scott Pask’s staging (though his rich, gold-tinted set does lean toward the Art Deco) or in the loose, slightly winky direction by Daniel Sullivan (The Little Foxes). But color-blind casting and the occasional 20th-century colloquialism feel mostly like modern window-dressing on a story that’s been marinating in the collective psyche for more than half a millennium.
And the drawing-room comedy bits — played largely for laughs by Adam Chanler-Berat’s peevish, preening dauphin and fussy bishops and self-regarding courtiers who surround him — don’t do much to build a real emotional investment in Joan or her cause. Only British TV and film veteran Jack Davenport (Smash, Pirates of the Caribbean) consistently finds the alchemy that makes Shaw’s dialogue feel like more than words on the page.
As the second act pivots to grim courtroom drama, Rashad’s girlishness begins to grow into the holy passion and fervor audiences expect from her — or from anyone, really, who is about to burned at the stake for their beliefs. (It’s also probably the only version of her story to incorporate a full-on slumber party).
Like last year’s David Byrne rock opera take at the Public, Shaw’s Joan aims to give contemporary audiences a 15th-century French peasant to relate to and root for, even in the face of one of history’s most infamous and ugly endings. It delivers the saint and the symbol, but the fully-formed human being who finally begins to emerge in the final scenes — stubborn, funny, messily real — makes another kind of sacrifice on the Friedman stage: She has to die in order to really start to live. B