Sunday, October 28, 2018

Glenn Close gives a powerful performance in the New York premiere of 'Mother of the Maid'

     When she was growing up, Jane Anderson had a rather odd role model for a young girl, especially a girl who wasn’t Catholic.  She looked all the way back to the 15th century and found inspiration from a French peasant name Joan who didn’t exactly have an easy life.  In fact, she was burned at the stake for heresy.

     “Always when I was a teenager I looked at Joan of Arc as an iconic character,” Anderson said.  “I wanted to be like that, with freedom, doing dangerous things, leaving home, going out into the world and having outrageous adventures.”

     As an adult she still thought about Joan, but her perspective shifted.

    “When I become a mother I understood what it was like for my mother to have daughter like me, what it’s like to have a young girl who is strange but gifted and a mother who loves her no matter what.”

     Anderson, a playwright and screenwriter, has combined these two focuses of her inspiration into a play, Mother of the Maid, in production through Dec. 23 at Off-Broadway’s The Public Theater with Glenn Close in the role of Isabelle Arc, Joan’s mother.  Close, who was unavailable for an interview, can also currently be seen in “The Wife,” a movie based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel by that name about a woman who questions her life choices as she travels to Stockholm with her self-absorbed husband who is receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Anderson wrote the screenplay.

     “I don’t have a daughter but I have a 23-year-old son,” she said.  “You want your child to be safe but adventurous, to be well-behaved but rebellious.  You hope when your child goes out in the world he will show well.”

     Anderson shared her reflections during a phone interview from the High Line, an elevated park along Manhattan’s Hudson River where she had gone for a walk with her family the day before Mother of the Maid was to open in its New York premiere.

     The play, which has been greatly rewritten since its world premiere in Lenox, MA, in 2015, draws on Anderson’s considerable research for historical context, but employs modern language, with terms like “wonky” and “good to go” and is largely dramatic license.

   “I didn’t want to write a historical play.  It’s a very personal play in the form of historical drama.  It’s not a Shaw play, although Saint Joan is magnificent.  Shaw wanted a play about politics.  I wanted to loosen it up and make it emotional and personal.”

     Ben Brantley, the New York Times’ chief theatre critic, gave the production an unqualified rave, writing “. . . if you want to see a bona fide stage star at the height of her powers, drawing energizing sustenance from an audience’s rapt attention, Mother of the Maid is the ticket for you.  Ms. Anderson’s robustly sentimental play, a take on a saint-in-the-making from a parent’s perspective, provides an old-fashioned showcase for the kind of acting with a capital A that once had Broadway theatergoers queuing around the block for returns. . . .  As for Ms. Close, there’s not a breath or utterance that doesn’t seem both carefully premeditated and absolutely in the moment. . . .  When, in her wrenching final soliloquy Ms. Close’s Isabelle talks about shaking her fists at God, you can’t help feeling that the Almighty had better take cover.”

     The Isabelle Anderson has imagined is rich material for an actress.  She travels a long emotional journey over the play’s two hours.  At the start, she’s a hard-working wife and mother, her full-skirted, faded dress soiled by her farm labors.  Her conversations with Joan run along the lines of contemporary mother/daughter chats.  She wants to know if Joanie is interested in any boys and steers the subject around to sex in an attempt to both educate her daughter and find out what she’s up to in that area.

      When Joanie reveals that she’s been visited by St. Catherine, Isabelle sounds more 21st century than 15th as she asks eagerly, “What does she look like?” and “What was she wearing?”  The effect is to establish an intimacy between the two and create a family life more accessible than a strict historical account would offer.

     When the local priest arrives at their humble home with a letter from the bishop proclaiming that Joan’s visions are authentic, Isabelle slowly moves from skepticism to wonder and finally to pride.  

     “She’s special,” she says in awe to her husband, who is unconvinced by the priest’s assurances.  “Who are we to keep her down?  Our girl has been chosen and we should both be fierce proud.”

     But Isabelle is concerned about her daughter going off to battle with a regiment of men.  Until Joanie comes downstairs with her newly cut hair and masculine tunic.  

     “No one’s going to be bothering you,” Isabelle says dryly.

      Anderson weaves such comic comments throughout the first act, bringing the centuries old story in line with present day family dramas.

     After a while, though, the loss of Joanie begins to weigh heavily on Isabelle, a woman who, true to her day, has never left her tiny village.  She gathers her courage and walks 300 miles in the rain and mud, with blisters and aching knees, to the court where Joan is living before heading out to fight against the occupying English army.  

     She is impressed with the grandeur of her daughter’s new life, but when the tide begins to turn against Joan, Isabelle is faced with a spiritual crisis.

    “Isabelle believes with all her heart what the local pastor told her,” Anderson says.  “She didn’t see the politics of the church manipulating their lives.  Her husband sees it and is afraid their daughter will be manipulated.”

     We see just how fierce Isabelle’s love for her daughter is as she defends her to the lady of the court and all who will listen.  This uneducated peasant is even willing to take on the pope.

     “I want to meet the man in a hat and tell him my daughter is no heretic,” she cries out.  

     But Isabelle is unsuccessful and Anderson creates a heartbreaking scene of her visiting Joan in prison, seeing her daughter thin and dirty, lying on the cold stone floor, chained to a wall, with an unemptied bucket of her waste beside her.  In great anguish, she begins bathing the body of her child before it is to be burned.  This is the scene that most affected the playwright.

     “I was shaking.  It was so awful to imagine.  What an unspeakable thing for a mother to have to do.”

    Anderson has done a lot of rewriting since the 2015 production, most notably eliminating a whole character, St. Catherine, who is now only spoken of as part of Joan’s visions.

   “She was a kind of narrator, funny and irreverent as she guided us through the play,” Anderson said.  “I was being far too clever for my own good.  It took away from the emotion.  Now it’s entirely Isabelle’s point of view.”

     Since the play is presented without a disclaimer in the program stating that it is largely a work of fiction in terms of the family’s life, audience members may come away thinking they have learned new biographical information.  At the end, when we are told that Joan’s father witnessed her execution and it left him blind and that he died in a cart on his way home, many in the theatre gasped.  While her father didn’t live long after her death, he didn’t die that day and was not blind.  

     “This is not a historical play,” Anderson repeated.  “It’s a family drama. I wasn’t interested in sticking to the facts. I wanted to find images that best described the emotional journey that my characters were on.  As I started writing Jacques’s monologue about his being there for his daughter's burning, it only made sense to me that he’d go blind after watching his girl go through such an unspeakably awful thing. It’s poetic license.”

     One line that is factual comes from Isabelle’s testimony from the hearing held in 1455 to clear Joan’s name of heresy, 25 years after she was burned, when Isabelle was in her ’80’s.  Anderson found it “so unbelievably moving”  that she made it last line of the play.  Its simplicity is powerfully dramatic.

     The diminutive actress stands alone in a spot of light and utters the words of pain and loss the mother spoke centuries ago: “I had a daughter once.” 

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Celebrating All Saint's Day Through the Lens of Theatre

All Saint’s Day is just around the corner! Actors of Elements Theatre Company (Cape Cod, MA) participated in the creation of an original production in celebration of All Saint’s Day, taking an unvarnished look at those we call saints. These were REAL people with lives, passions, sufferings, and joys. They accepted their humanity and brokenness, and their zeal for God continued to grow—this is what made them a saint. What an example of hope for all of us!

Join in the ecumenical celebration of those we call saints, portrayed through the lens of theatre. Elements Theatre Company and Paraclete Press Inc. present Battered and Bright: Celebrating the Saints on November 2 & 3 at the Church of the Transfiguration, Orleans, MA. Meet these revered saints—Peter, Paul, Patrick, Priscilla, Aquila, Catherine of Sienna, and Francis—whose stories will come to life through narratives and choral & movement pieces. Fire-lit basins, background projections, live music, and a large book sets the stage, allowing the audience to step into this world of saints through the ages.

“As actors, we must take on the whole person of the character we are playing.” said Artistic Director, Danielle Dwyer, CJ, when talking about the process and creation of this production. “As we charted the saints’ journeys of spirit, walked through their lives, explored their vibrancy of faith and commitment, we found hope. There is no shame in being human; once we accept this gift, there is actual peace.”

Jon Sweeney, Paraclete Press Editor-in-Chief, will moderate the post-performance discussions with Artistic Director Danielle Dwyer, CJ, and Dramaturg Brad Lussier. Guest speakers include Paraclete Press authors Bert Ghezzi, Susan L. Miller, and Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle; St. Peter’s Lutheran Church pastor Christian Holleck; and others. Meet the cast & panelists

November 2, 7:30 p.m.
November 3, 3:00 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.
Church of the Transfiguration, Orleans, MA

For tickets, call 508-240-2400 or purchase online at
(Group discounts available)

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Separate and Equal

          Choreographer Lawrence M. Jackson scores the highest points in the New York premiere of Seth Panitch’s Separate and Equal, which opened this afternoon at 59E59 Theaters.  In this play about a racially charged basketball game in Birmingham, AL, in 1951, the three black and three white teenage players flow back and forth across the performance space in what appears to be a slow motion modern dance.  No ball is used; the moves are all pantomimed.  Jackson is given a nice assist by Tom Wolfe who composed original jazz to set the mood and intensify the action.

     Unfortunately the player in this creative effort who is responsible for the greatest foul is Panitch.  His 85-minute script, which he directs, is more a sketch than a developed play, and he manages to slam-dunk every racial stereotype of the south in that era.  You’ll hear the expected name calling, like nigger and cracker, see the standard characters like the long-suffering black mother who works as a maid for the superior -acting white lady, and an elderly black man who is called Uncle by the bigoted white police officer.  Those elements were part of the segregated South, of course, but they are overplayed in this short work, which was inspired by testimonials from the Oral History Project at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  Attempts to fill out the story come from flashbacks, during which the non-involved characters lie on the floor while the action is spotlighted.  The one involving a lynching is nicely stylized, but all of these efforts fall short of real plot development. The show felt much, much longer than 85 minutes.  

     Production designer Matthew Reynolds has made good use of the small Theater B, with seating surrounding the performance space to form a rectangle and give a gym-like sense.  Two blank “backboards” are at opposite ends of the “court” and media designer Maya Champion makes good use of them, starting with the signs that greet the audience before the play — on one a drinking fountain with the word COLORED and the other an identical fountain with the word WHITE.  The division is established from the start.  When video is added, nets appear, with a white hand or black sinking a shot.  It’s easy to feel a game is being played.  In this case, the game just happens to be illegal because whites and blacks were forbidden to play on the same court. 

     The cast manages to give good performances in spite of the weak script.  I checked the program to see how many of the players were dancers and didn’t see dance in any of their bios.  They have the fluidity and timing of pros.  Their game sequences were the highlight of the show. 

     Separate and Equal is produced by the University of Alabama in partnership with the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum and the Birmingham Metro NAACP.  It plays a limited engagement through Sept. 30.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Chad Kimball to headline 21st annual Broadway Blessing

Broadway veteran actor/singer Chad Kimball will headline the 21st annual Broadway Blessing, the interfaith service of song, dance and story that brings the theatre community together every September to celebrate the spirit of the new season. Join us for this free event at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 17 at St. Malachy's Church/The Actors' Chapel on 49th Street between Eighth Avenue and Broadway. No reservations are necessary.

I founded Broadway Blessing and produced it for the first 16 years. Last year Kathryn Fisher, a longtime member of the Broadway Blessing Choir, took over as producer and filled the house at St. Malachy’s for a joyful 20th anniversary celebration.

Under the direction of Stephen Fraser, the event will include favorite music from new and classic shows as well as an appearance by Kimball, who is currently charming packed houses in the Broadway smash Come From Away. That musical tells the true stories of the kindness of the citizens of tiny Gander, Newfoundland, to the nearly 7,000 people from around the world who landed in their town unexpectedly on Sept. 11, 2001, after the Federal Aviation Administration stopped all air traffic over the United States following the terrorist attacks. Among the characters Kimball plays is Kevin Tuerff, one of the stranded passengers. Tueff will appear with Kimball.

The entertainment continues as the cast of Desperate Measures offers a peek at this rollicking, good-fun Off-Broadway musical.

The evening will include surprises and participation by Fr. John Fraser, St. Malachy’s pastor, and Rabbi Jill Hausman from the Actors' Temple.

Fr. George Drance, SJ, artistic director of Magis Theatre Company and artist-in-residence at Fordham University, will serve as emcee for the evening. He and Ashley Griffin will share a few moments from Griffin's play Trial, which is directed by Lori Petty.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

5K Race for Freedom

LifeWay Network joins the global movement against human trafficking​ by providing safe housing for women survivors and offering education about trafficking to the general public. Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery and impacts more than 20 million people worldwide, including women and children in New York City.

We are one of only two organizations in the New York Metro area providing safe housing specifically for women survivors of human trafficking and we have served more than 85 women. Our Safe Housing Program goes beyond offering shelter by welcoming each woman into a supportive environment that helps them recover from their trauma, regain their sense of self-worth and enables them to move from isolation towards reclaiming their independence.

The Education Program raises public awareness about this crime that should have no place in the 21st century. To date, Lifeway Network has reached more than13,000 people.

We invite you to join us in ending modern-day slavery by supporting the 5K Race for Freedom on Saturday, Sept. 29 at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens, NY.

Please consider ​sponsoring the 5K Race for Freedom.​ A $1000 sponsorship includes public recognition at the event and logo on the race shirt. A $2500 sponsorship includes website acknowledgement, public recognition at the event, and logo on the race shirt. Sponsorships must be confirmed and logos received by September 12th for race shirts. There are also opportunities to underwrite expenses or donate in-kind items and receive public recognition at the race.

You may also want to ​form a team to volunteer at the Race or participate as runners / walkers​. This is a great way to offer employees, alumni groups or friends a chance to give back to the community and have fun together. Race registration to run or walk is $40 per person, and teams receive a discount of $5 per person.

LifeWay Network is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and your contribution is tax-deductible as allowed by law. For more information, please contact me ​​ or visit our website w​​.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

God Needed a Puppy

     When I was in elementary school my puppy, Kerry, died unexpectedly.  I sat on my bed and cried inconsolably.  She had been there when I left for school and then she was gone.  That’s how it felt, that she no longer existed because I couldn’t see her.

     My experience of loss would have been greatly helped if I had had a copy of God Needed a Puppy, Emmy Award-winning TV journalist John Gray’s newly released book that helps children (and adults) see their pet’s death in a different light.  A wise owl named Edgar reveals the healing idea that the pet was needed by another child in heaven and that those two are now playing together and happy.  If I had been able to think of Kerry this way I could have pictured her everyday in her new life and she would have lived on for me.

     Gray was prompted to write God Needed a Puppy after he experienced the unexpected death of his six-month-old puppy named Samuel.  He teamed up with Shanna Brickell who created lovely colored illustrations of woodland critters, domestic pets and their worlds.  They lend a gentle, comforting feel to the book.

     At first Gray envisioned the project as a modest venture that he would self-publish.  He held an event in an Albany, NY, mall and 850 people waited in line to buy copies.  Eventually he sold 14,500 copies before signing with Paraclete Press, which releases the book today.

     A portion of the proceeds will go to animal shelters around the country.  Gray says everyone has a purpose.

     “Maybe Samuel’s purpose is this book.”