The Lark

Eclipse Theatre Company

at the Athenaeum Theatre

By Kelly Kleiman

Julie Daley’s performance as Joan of Arc is reason enough to see Eclipse Theatre Company’s production of The Lark, adapted by Lillian Hellman from a verse play by Jean Anouilh. Daley is marvelous: down-to-earth, straightforward, and natural yet utterly persuasive in a part that requires the audience to accept the spiritual and supernatural. Daley leaves no doubt that Joan’s voices connect her to God but also no doubt of her humanity. She even looks perfect, simultaneously sturdy and fragile, as she must be to play “the Maid,” “this child,” “this little girl” who somehow led the French to victory in battle.

Daley is well supported by Tim Curtis, who gives a wonderful comic-pathetic portrayal of the sniveling Dauphin, crowned King of France at Joan’s insistence and much against his will. John Lister is moving as Cauchon, the church official charged with trying Joan in an ecclesiastical court and desperate to save her.

Sadly, the production overall is not as fine as these performances. Though the plot is perfectly clear, it’s not at all apparent what point this oft-told story is meant to make. Part of the problem seems to be the play itself, which has a lot of fingerprints on it. Anouilh wrote it in 1953; then Christopher Fry adapted it for the London stage, where it received lukewarm reviews. Hellman’s readaptation for the play’s New York opening in late 1955 (with Julie Harris as Joan and Boris Karloff as Cauchon) was well received. The play also has multiple time signatures. Though its action is set in the 15th century, the prologue takes place right after World War I, and it was originally written in France after the Second World War and adapted in this country at the height of the cold war. The Lark is less a play than a competition among ideas from each of these people and periods.

Anyone who’s seen or read Anouilh’s Becket will have no difficulty recognizing this as a product of the same pen: there’s the same feckless king, the same destruction of female innocence, and the same godly character who gets it in the end. There’s also the same sardonic tone; the Eclipse audience was surprised into laughter by holy Joan’s complaint about hearing voices: “That’s when I was saddled with France.” And the themes are identical: what does God want from us, and how can we tell the difference between God’s will and our own ambition? Despite Joan’s personal contact with archangels and saints, she faces fear and uncertainty when she tries to execute their instructions, which do after all seem idiotic: “You, peasant girl, go crown the King. And get yourself a white horse. Can’t ride? Just hang on as best you can”–which might well be a French existentialist’s description of God’s plan.

Obliquely, The Lark also considers another subject of particular interest to the French: the Nazi occupation. Warwick (Kelly Van Kirk), the English military overseer of the trial, mostly just sits to the side and watches; but everyone in the room knows that he’s the one determining Joan’s fate and that his soldiers are guarding her. Once Cauchon steps forward to make an eloquent defense of “collaboration,” it isn’t much of a stretch to see Warwick as a representative of the Germans who oversaw the Vichy government. Setting the play in 1920, the year Joan was canonized, makes an obvious point: look how we treated her, and she was a saint! But what makes the play poignant is that Anouilh was writing only a few years after Frenchmen had disgraced themselves by cooperating with the Nazis. In betraying Joan, Anouilh seems to say, we learned how to betray France. The playwright may long to believe that “the real miracle of God is man,” as Joan says, but he seems convinced by the arguments of the Inquisitor (David Krajecki): “We know the name of the enemy, and here he is–natural man.”

That’s Anouilh’s play. Hellman’s, on the other hand, features a worldly Joan who gets the horse and army she wants by telling men they’re handsome and intelligent. More important, it features a Joan badgered by questioners willfully misinterpreting everything she says for the purpose, as Warwick roars, of “getting to the burning.” This Joan seems to be appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, saying, “I have told you over and over and over again…” and “What I am, I will not denounce; what I have done, I will not deny.” This subtext may explain why the play’s structure feels so familiar. Under enormous pressure, Joan recants, but at the last minute she revokes her recantation and goes to the stake. Two seasons before, Arthur Miller in The Crucible–also commenting on the HUAC hearings–had John Proctor make a confession, revoke it at the last minute, and go to the gallows. (Hellman also has Joan observe that the secret to courage is to “act as if you’re not afraid,” a sentiment apparently cribbed from the 1951 Broadway hit The King and I.)

All these competing ideas and visions may account for the fact that The Lark is rarely performed–it’s a real challenge for a director even to decide what it’s about. Unfortunately director Kirsten Kelly has not fared well, as evidenced by the wide variation in the actors’ styles–each seems almost to be in his own play. Joan is clear and unmannered, Warwick is costume-drama bombastic, and the Inquisitor’s melodramatic rendition of evil suggests Snidely Whiplash. There’s also a variety of accents, from the blessedly dialect-free work of the three strongest performers to unpersuasive stage British to French accents reminiscent of Pepe le Pew. And who decided that the Maid’s name should be pronounced “Zhone”? It’s “Zhann” in French, and “Joan,” hard J, in English. Pick one.

Several of the two-character scenes work well. Joan’s encounter with Robert de Beaudricourt (Michael Dailey) is charming: he’s a self-involved fool, she an inspiring leader. The same is true of her work with the Dauphin. But when the Dauphin is compelled to interact with his wife, his mistress, and his mother-in-law, all onstage at the same time, no one comes out ahead.

Chris Corwin’s terrific set makes a virtue of necessity, draping the small, run-down space with drop cloths to convey a postwar cathedral restoration. The walls show wonderfully executed fragments of frescoes blasted by bombs. Michelle Bush’s costume design is less successful: she puts everyone in 15th-century garb except Joan, who’s wearing leather pants with a studded belt and a little crop top, later replaced by a glittery pullover meant to represent armor. Perhaps the intention was to single Joan out as timeless or contemporary, but the effect is merely jarring, especially when she abandons her “men’s clothes” for a period linen shift.

In her director’s note, Kelly observes that we need stories of faith to teach and inspire us, and certainly The Lark presents one of those stories. But given that emphasis, the play’s sophisticated contest of ideas becomes just so much clutter, getting in the way of our seeing and appreciating a saint. It’s a shame that Kelly was unable to make the choices that would have clarified how faith and intelligence–even skepticism–can operate side by side.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Kate Vandehey.