Born a poor peasant in 1412, Joan d’Arc never made it to her twentieth birthday. But she made true the adage that it’s not the years of your life that count but the life in your years. One of the first Protestant martyrs — she was canonized in 1920 and later became a feminist role model — Joan was a scrappy sorceress who provoked barren hens to lay again and winds to change direction. As author George Bernard Shaw wrote in his preface to Saint Joan, she was “the queerest fish among the eccentric worthies of the Middle Ages.”
Fascinatingly directed (by Larry Carpenter) and expertly designed, the Missouri Repertory Theatre’s Saint Joan is commanding in all respects save one, and it’s a biggie: the central performance of Kate Goehring as Joan. Only in a couple of scenes does Goehring seem in tune with the play’s time and place — such as the moment in Scene VI when church leaders decide (though it’s fairly predetermined) that Joan will burn at the stake. Her refusal to kowtow to her inquisitors exemplifies what Shaw meant when he called Joan both “miraculous” and “overbearing.”
Ironically, the show’s biggest asset is the masculine side of the cast. Valuable local actors (Gary Neal Johnson, Mark Robbins, T. Max Graham, Brian Paulette and Gary Holcombe) as well as high-caliber imports (Nesbitt Blaisdell, Michael Heintzman, Jay Edwards, Jim Gall, Larry Paulsen, Kurt Rhoads, William Parry, James McDonnell and David McCann) superbly play the church officials, royalty, soldiers and inquisitors who find Joan’s oneness with God a bit heretical.
Surrounded by such authoritative work from her male colleagues, every one of Goehring’s affectations, however slight, is magnified and becomes irksome. In the first act’s climactic Scene V, she keeps holding on to the side of her cape, swishing it about every time she moves as if she’s afraid she’ll trip. If this quirk has something to do with David Murin’s exemplary costume design, it should have been fixed in previews. As it is, it’s completely out of character, and Goehring comes off as some combination of Peter Pan and an attention-starved runway model. Matters aren’t helped by Goehring’s flat voice, which sounds too contemporary for this material; only when she yells can she muster any variety, and even then it’s merely volume. Goehring first appeared in Kansas City for the Rep’s wonderful Machinal last season, but she may be an actress of diminishing returns.
Saint Joan is otherwise tremendous. John Ezell’s set design, Phil Monat’s lighting and Tom Mardikes’ sound meld for a production that jars the senses. At the end of the show, a backdrop that’s been used as a screen for a close-up of those fatal flames is ripped from its moorings and turned first into a billowing red cloud, then a luxurious carpet. And David Murin’s costumes — except for those of the stagehands, who wear lime-green coveralls — are lush and complicated. What the green represents is unclear, but it’s of a piece with Carpenter’s immensely stylish show.