In my teaching days, I used George Bemard Shaw's Saint Joan at least a dozen times. Yet I'd never seen a fully staged performance until I attended a production at the Contra Costa Civic Theater in April. I entered the theater with great anticipation, hoping to see Shaw's words and ideas given substance.
Of course almost all of Shaw's works are talk heavy, with Saint Joan a prime example. Vibrant staging is, therefore, vital to keep the show from becoming static. This director and company were not quite up to the challenge until the Epilogue, King Charles' bedchamber 25 years after Joan's burning as a heretic. It is the day the Church, in its on-going wisdom, admits that the judgment against Joan was in error and annulls her sentence, at the same time excommunicating her judges and prosecutor, all by then, like Joan, safely dead.
Charles has a dream filled with ghosts—every character who has played a significant role, even those still alive, appears to him. The scene is full of life and humor, both subtle and broad, and this staging and cast brings to it energy, focus and passion. Would that they had brought those same qualities to the 6 preceding scenes—especially Scene IV, the English and Burgundians, secular and clerical, scheming to capture Joan and have her burnt at the stake because she is such a hindrance to their larger plans. The brilliance of Shaw's dialogue in that scene, his views on politics and religion, gets bogged down with the 3 actors seated throughout, jabbering at each other rather than carrying on a palpable discussion. The energy level and focus is low despite the occasional outbursts of shouting by Phil Reed as Chaplain Stogumber. The overall effect, unfortunately, is nearly soporific.
What should have been a high point becomes a low point. I won't go further into individual performances since this is community theater and one enters expecting that the skill levels on display may be mismatched and inconsistent. What does need to be clear, however, is that the success of any production of Saint Joan depends on the actors portraying Joan and Charles. This night they began not very well, with Joan annoyingly perky and bouncy and Charles working too hard at being a comic weakling.
By the time the scene of the Inquisition arrives, however, Kate Culbertson as Joan has found her center and fills the theater with Joan's anguish. And in the Epilogue, as noted above, she and Misha Madison as Charles carry off their interchanges with vigor and truth. So when it ends, the audience leaves feeling they've been to a worthwhile Saint Joan.
Still, walking out to the parking lot, I could not shake the feeling that the problem of turning Shavian politics and word play into stage action had been solved very partially, leaving the CCCT production far less than it might have been