"There is something about the girl," muses the gentleman soldier Bertrand de Poulengey midway through the first scene of George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan." This young warrior, like so many others, has been smitten by the supreme confidence and unswerving faith of Joan of Arc, but he doesn't quite know how to explain how a teenage lass has persuaded him to follow her into battle against the English at Orleans.
Poulengey is only one of a host of male characters in this most humane and spellbinding of historical plays -- the fourth production of the new Washington Shakespeare Company -- who tries to find the appropriate words for Joan. "She is so positive," enthuses a steward. "A crazy wench," scoffs the Archbishop of Rheims. "An angel dressed as a soldier," declares Captain La Hire. "I told you she was a witch," the pig-headed English Chaplain of Stogumber tells Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais. "She is not a witch. She is a heretic," the Frenchman replies fiercely.
This widespread inability to make sense of Joan provides a wonderful contrast with the character of Joan herself. Shaw portrays her as a fearless, stubborn, uncomplicated creature whose direct and persuasive use of language serves as the perfect metaphor for her actions and beliefs: "I am not a daredevil: I am a servant of God," she tells Dunois, the fighting Bastard, in typically forthright fashion. "My heart is full of courage, not of anger. I will lead; and your men will follow: That is all I can do. But I must do it: You shall not stop me."
As portrayed by Desiree Marie, a young actress of great precision and energy, Joan comes across as both a spitfire and a sage. Short in stature, and possessed of a strong, chiseled countenance, glowing dark eyes and a winning smile, Marie moves across the stage as if propelled by some whirring interior motor. Her stance is treelike; when she sits, it is as if she has glued herself to the stool. When debating a comrade or adversary, she nails him with her gaze. Her speaking voice, slightly French-accented, is at once warm and bracing, and one never gets the feeling that she is in love with the sound of it. Her often-impassioned words are not intoned, but uttered out of dire necessity.
The entire WSC production, directed by Richard Mancini, is infused with this straightforward, unencumbered quality. David Crandall's scene-setting sonic washes of horses' hooves and church bells; David Zemmels's evocative lighting design; Jason Adams's spare-but-lovingly-constructed wooden tables, chairs and bed; and Sandra K. Lynne's tunics, leggings and headgear share an economy and focus that never detract from the action -- and glorious dialogue -- at hand.
And though the rest of the 22-member ensemble is not quite as in-sync as the production values -- especially as far as accents are concerned -- there's never a dull or embarrassing moment in the three-hours-plus evening. As the Dauphin, Jim Stone is right on the mark, playing that crybaby king as both a namby-pamby nerd and a realist. Some of the best exchanges are those between him and the feuding members of his court: the bellowing Tremouille (Bart Whiteman), the fey Bluebeard (Lester Lain), gung-ho Captain La Hire (Dan Awkward) and the Archbishop of Rheims (Bryan Cassidy), a most manipulative and cynical soul. Richard Henrich's prissy, ever-politic Earl of Warwick, Joseph Scolero's alternately cerebral and passionate Cauchon, and T J Edwards's spookily rational Inquisitor are also standouts.
In the preface to "Saint Joan," Shaw wittily defends his "undramatic and tedious" emphasis on "the Church, the feudal system, the Inquisition, the theory of heresy and so forth" rather than on elaborate depictions of battle, the Dauphin's coronation and Joan's burning. Watching Mancini and company's sensitive, often humorous and, above all, accessible rendering of the 1923 classic, one thanks heaven that some folks still favor substance over flash.
Saint Joan, by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Richard Mancini. Lighting by David Zemmels. Sound design by David Crandall. Set design by Mancini; furniture designed and constructed by Jason Adams. Costumes by Sandra K. Lynne. With Jason Adams, Dan Awkward, John Brady, Tim Carlin, Bryan Cassidy, Tamara Coleman, Brian Desmond, T J Edwards, Mason L. Essif, Christopher Henley, Richard Henrich, Kenneth Kirkland, Lester Lain, Bill Lambert, Desiree Marie, Maureen Polsby, Joseph Scolero, Peter Spencer, Jim Stone, Angel Torres, David Walsh, Bart Whiteman. At Takoma Park's Black Box Theatre through Nov. 18. Call 202-546-8585.