POWERED BY PASSION Westgate and Lanni. [Photo by Richard W. Dionne, Jr.]
Customarily, when there’s a hero in a drama, there is usually a villain or two. So it’s peculiar that in George Bernard Shaw’s preface to Saint Joan, which 2nd Story Theatre is staging (through December 15, directed by Ed Shea), he makes the point that there are no villains in the play.
Ironically, that makes this account of Joan of Arc, which is based largely on transcripts of her trial, easier for most of us to identify with. Probably not with her, unless we have an overweening sense of our virtue, but rather with her persecutors. Who among us can be fully confident of never having badly misjudged someone?
In the early 1400s during the Hundred Years War, the play opens with a typical change of mind — and heart — about Joan. The violent-tempered French nobleman Robert de Baudricourt (Eric Behr) is furious at his steward (Andrew Iacovelli), thinking that he stole eggs from hens that had stopped laying. The pummeling is interrupted as Joan (Valerie Westgate) is allowed in to request that he assign a few men to her. She says that the voices of St. Catherine and St. Margaret have instructed her to lift the English siege against Orleans. Scoffing at first, the lord eventually figures it would be in his interest to comply and does so. Immediately his steward rushes in to exclaim that the hens are now laying dozens of eggs.
Apart from the fact that the actual historical account reports Baudricourt sending her away without help, this sets the pattern for the illiterate country girl — she says she is 17, “maybe 19” — as influential people dismiss her as foolish and deluded before meeting her and becoming captivated by her simple faith. She does more than just charm them. As Count John of Orleans (Jeff Church), affectionately known as the Bastard of Orleans, waits with his troops and ships for the winds to change so they can attack, Joan shows up and pretty soon — poof! — the winds reverse.
Westgate is perfectly cast as Joan. Petite, with a childlike face, she embodies the irony that Joan represented — that with God on their side, the vulnerable can defeat the strong.
Joan’s aim is to drive the English and Burgundians out of France and back to their own borders. By the end of the play we get clear explanations of why this would be so dangerous to the feudal order: subjects could become loyal to their king rather than to their regional lord and to the Church.
The most important person Joan influences is the weak and self-centered Dauphin, the eventual Charles VII, played with delightful childishness by Rico Lanni. Ostensibly in charge, he’s a pushover, easily frightened by a forceful personality, with his military commander Tremouille (F. William Oakes) giving marching orders, and the Archbishop (Jim Sullivan) equally intimidating on the spiritual side. Joan gives him the fortitude to stand up to them, and she is put in charge of his army — not implausible in this telling, since her selfless conviction and mettle has made his soldiers admire and eagerly follow “The Maid.”