May 25, 2018 at 12:43 pm EST | by Patrick Folliard
‘Waitress,’ ’Saint Joan’ depict plucky theatrical heroines
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Desi Oakley as JEnna in ‘Waitress.’ (Photo by Joan Marcus)

‘Waitress’
 
Through June 3
 
National Theatre
 
1321 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
 
$48-108
 
800-514-3849

Dria Brown as Joan of Arc in ’Saint Joan.’ (Photo by Teresa Wood)

‘Saint Joan’
 
Through June 10
 
Folger Theatre
 
201 East Capitol St., S.E.
 
$30-79
 
202-544-7077

Heroines transcend time and circumstances. What they share are qualities of strength and goodness with which audiences typically sympathize. Currently, two very different productions have come to town featuring plucky women whose stories, though wholly dissimilar, both inspire.

Jenna, the title character in the musical “Waitress” now at National Theatre, is a hardworking heroine. Pulling long shifts at a roadside diner somewhere in the south and stuck in an abusive marriage, she finds solace in baking pies. They are a way to work out feelings and express herself. She uses unexpected ingredients and names them according to what’s happening in her life: “my-husband’s-a-jerk-chicken-pot-pie,’’ “I-want-to-play-doctor-with-my-gynecologist-pie,” “pursuit-of-happiness-pie,” etc.

When Jenna (Desi Oakley) learns she’s pregnant by rotten husband Earle (Nick Bailey), she plots to escape with the prize money she hopes to win in a statewide baking contest. In the meantime, she falls into an awkward but passionate affair with her shy ob-gyn, Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart). But when future happiness looks most unlikely, Jenna must dig deep to find a way out.

A stage adaptation of Adrienne Shelly’s quirky 2007 flick with an enjoyable country western/Broadway score by Grammy winner Sara Bareilles, an unsubtle book by Jessie Nelson and direction by Diane Paulus — the show’s first act, especially, is plagued with broad comedy and hammy performances. But like the New York production that was graced by Jessie Mueller as Jenna in 2015, the touring production has Oakley as Jenna. Her everywoman take is fully drawn and she puts across songs with power and feeling.

Scott Pask’s realistic set moves easily from Jenna’s humble apartment to the doctor’s generic examining room. But much of the story unfolds in Joe’s Pie Diner (a nice replica of Americana with views of big skies and lonesome, endless highway). In the diner, the comedic setup is familiar (think TV’s “Alice” only without the landed jokes and charm). There’s the crusty short order cook Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), sassy waitress Becky (Charity Angél Dawson), and insecure, loopy Dawn (Lenne Kingamann) who finds her soulmate in cloying Ogie (Jeremy Morse), and the eccentric regular — owner Joe, played by Larry Marshall.

Things pick up significantly in the less cornball and fast second act. It also features the show’s best numbers including “You Matter to Me,” an affecting duet with Dr. Pomatter and Jenna, and Oakley in her biggest moment singing, “She Used to Be Mine,” in which Jenna movingly remembers the promising person she once was.

As heroines go, Joan of Arc ranks pretty high. Instructed by the voices of saints, teenage Joan left the family farm in 1429, donned armor, led the French army in driving the English out of Orleans and paved the way for the crowning of the Dauphin at Reims. Two years later she was captured by the enemy and after a long and arduous trial, was put to death for heresy.

Bedlam, a small New York company, debuted in 2012 with an enthusiastically well-received streamlined, immersive, four-actor interpretation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1923 classic “Saint Joan.” Now Bedlam brings that same production to Folger Theatre.

Directed by Bedlam’s artistic director Eric Tucker, who is also a cast member along with Sam Massaro, Edmund Lewis and Dria Brown as Joan, the production gets out of the way of the material and lets Shaw’s brilliant writing tell Joan’s story. With almost no sets or props, a cast costumed in 20th century street clothes and willing audience members seated in plain folding chairs onstage, history unfolds in all its humor, poignance and exciting detail.

Brown’s Joan, determined and cheerfully fearless, moves from naïve country girl to spot-lit captive undergoing interrogation in a darkened theater. When we first meet Joan, she bounds onstage wearing a pale blue sleeveless dress. Later she appears in a dark coat and high boots more appropriate for the battlefield. Joan’s “crossdressing” was used against her and ultimately played a role in her conviction and execution. Whether adopting soldier drag played a part in her sexuality or gender identity is uncertain.

Performances are stellar all around. The level of concentration displayed as the male cast members assume numerous different roles is an impressive feat, yet they make it look easy.  Standout turns in the enthralling three-hour (two intermission) play are Tucker as Warwick, the aristocrat who rather unfeelingly assists in casting Joan’s fate. And Lewis as Father John, a nationalistic Englishman gunning for conviction, who is forever changed after witnessing the heroine’s burning at the stake.

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