NEW YORK -- The National Actors Theater's production of Bernard Shaws 'Saint Joan,' which opened Sunday at the Lyceum Theater, is the company's best effort in its shaky two-season history, thanks to a finely tuned cast headed by Maryann Plunkett.
Plunkett, best remembered as the girl in the hit Broadway musical 'Me and My Girl,' may not bring the otherwordly glow of sainthood to the role of Joan but she limns a fascinating portrait of an honestly cunning country maid intent on creating a French nation out of a welter of Medieval baronies.
Inspired by the heavenly voices of apparently Francophile saints, Shaw's Joan is a particularly thorny young lady who wore down the opposition with her peasant logic and lack of respect for authority. Her faith is so profoundly personal that the dominant Roman Catholic hierarchy sees it as a harbinger of 'protestant-ism.'
Plunkett gets the spunky, naive aspect of Joan, a feminist without knowing it, just right, but the nobility of vision which should transform the trial scene with a spiritual luminosity when Joan is on the stand is missing. Plunkett plays her straight, without a halo, and finds veracity enough in this approach to make this 'Saint Joan' well worth seeing.
It is one of Shaw's wittiest plays and the only one which attempts an epic theme. All talk and little action, it is saved as a drama by the playwright's ability to wring ironic comedy out of an inspirational tragedy and is enhanced by an epilogue that puts the Maid of Orlean into historic perspective.
Outstanding performances by this large cast, some members doing two roles, include an impressively stalwart portrayal of Dunois, the bastard of Orleans, by Jay O. Sanders (Plunkett's husband).
John Neville turns in a remarkably subtle performance as the Earl of Warwick and Nicholas Kepros is an impressively devious Inquisitor.
Louis Turenne is admirable as the well-meaning Bishop of Beauvais and Remak Ramsay gives his Chaplain de Stogumber an explosive chauvinistic charge. Lorne Kennedy as the sympathetic chaplain who tries to guide Joan through her trial makes a strong impression, as does John Franklyn- Robbins as sanctimonious Archbishop of Rheims.
Michael Stuhlbarg is miscast as the Dauphin, playing him as an revoltingly unattractive worm without a trace of the pitiful fledgling monarch that Joan affectionately called 'Charlie.'
Michael Langham's direction is solid if not inspired. Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's shorthand settings recreate the period and its courtly accouterments and Anne Hould-Ward's costumes are low-keyed in color but rich in texture. Richard Nelson's ethereal lighting suggest a spirituality missing in this 'Saint Joan.'