The big problem with staging George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan" is the purity of the title character and the temptation to fall into pomp and circumstance amid the monastic trappings.
Director Matthew Faison's gritty production at Theatre Exchange meets these obstacles head-on, at least wrestling them to the ground, and the result is one of the most accessible "Saint Joans" you may have a chance to see.
The last significant "Saint Joan" in Los Angeles was the 1974 Ahmanson production starring Sarah Miles. (South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa mounted one in 1984.)
Theatre Exchange, illuminated by Elizabeth Cava in the title role, does it better. That's because this production is not so exalted, because--at least for Shaw--the pace is a comparatively brisk 2 1/2 hours, and because the acting, down to the most inconspicuous role, is first-rate.
Seldom does Equity Waiver theater do classical tragedy so well.
Cava moves from Shaw's pious, naive innocent to an ardent, desperate, angry Joan, a Maid of Orleans whose death by fire is horrifically signaled by a faint red glow filling set designer Nancy Eisenman's towering wood pyres.
Director Faison writes in a program note that he has leapfrogged the setting from the 15th Century to an imagined future following a thermonuclear war. But that is hogwash and unnecessary. Fortunately, the play still looks as Shaw intended it.
What comes across so clearly is Shaw's iconoclasm: "the bondage of the law," the heretic as menace to society, the artificiality of all churches and ecclesiastical systems, and the virtue of individual faith (read common sense). But messages don't make drama. And this production is continually breathing life rather than words.
The role of the weakling Dauphin is a juicy romp for an actor, and Charles Berendt is particularly vivid and cleverly captures Shaw's touches of humor. Several others in the 17-member cast deliver rich and/or notable performances, among them Timothy Rice's fierce but fair Inquisitor, Rob Zapple's sturdy commander, John Fields' frustrated bishop, and, flavorfully in the Epilogue, Gene Reeves' roisterous, singing soldier.
Instrumental to the achievement is Casey Cowan's brooding lighting, filled with brown and coppery texture. Kevan Torfeh contributes effective original music. Leslie Yarmo did the uneven costuming, the show's only inconsistency.
Performances at 11855 Hart St., North Hollywood, Friday through Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday matinee, 2 p.m., runs indefinitely. Tickets: $10, (818) 782-3140.