Theater Review: In Saint Joan at Quintessence, Politics and Religion on a Collision Course

Rebecca Wright's beautiful production finds the essence of Shaw's gorgeous, unwieldy play.

Ife Foy and Leigha Kato in Saint Joan at Quintessence. (Photo by )

Ife Foy and Leigha Kato in Saint Joan at Quintessence. [Photo by Shawn May]

My college acting career began with Saint Joan — I was the steward in the first scene. We can probably all be grateful that said career ended there, too, but 30-plus years later, my love affair with Shaw’s gorgeous, unwieldy play continues. I still remember passages of the text (and not just my own lines).

If you know anything about Shaw, your first question is likely to be, “what is an avowed atheist doing writing about a saint?”

Well, as our smart director pointed out those many years ago — and vividly on display in this spare, beautifully staged, often hypnotic production at Quintessence — Shaw views Joan more as a rabble-rouser and political lightning rod than a religious icon. His Joan of Arc may be too good for this world — but she’s also too brash, too bossy, too much trouble.

At Quintessence, Joan is played by Leigha Kato, a lovely, sympathetic actress with a remarkably expressive face. Kato is stronger here depicting Joan’s lit-up energy than her ferocity and otherworldliness, but there’s no question — the character is a handful. And that is the core of Shaw’s message — that Joan’s zeal was as dangerous to political hierarchies (French and English) as to religious ones; her tragic fate was a near certainty.

Rebecca Wright’s staging — stunningly lit, on an often bare stage that cuts through the audience, and with fanciful print costumes that suggest the medieval setting without pining it down — reinforces the core sense of play as an arena for vigorous philosophical debate.

Saint Joan is an epic — my tiny-print edition is 125 pages, not including the prologue essay, and there are more than 30 characters (here, 11 actors take them on in multiple assignments). In production, downsizing is virtually inevitable, even desirable. Still, a few elements inevitably are lost in translation. Shaw’s original conception makes explicitly clear that all the pomp and monumental grandeur of France is no match for this tiny farm girl — here, that must be (ahem) taken on faith.

Still, there’s far more that works splendidly. If Joan (a huge challenge for even the most experienced actor) is the centerpiece, several prominent male roles are hardly easier. The mix of wit, irony, and sincerity is tricky, and several of the speeches are marathons. The ensemble here, all doing earnest, yeoman-like service, deserve congratulations, with special praise to Sean Close and Josh Carpenter (who are best at the Shavian banter), and Gregory Isaac (whose performance as Peter Cauchon is heartbreaking in its emotional directness). Kudos too to Adriano Shaplin’s evocative, immersive sound design.

It was merely a coincidence that I saw Saint Joan — the story of a martyr who paid the ultimate price — on Easter Sunday, but an apt one. On stage at Quintessence, she has risen.

Saint Joan runs in repertory through April 22. For more information, visit the Quintessence Theatre website.