For any survivors left from Arena Stage's emotionally exhausting "Caucasian Chalk Circle" earlier this season, Bertolt Brecht's war has flared up again in the Acting Company production of "Mother Courage and Her Children" at Ford's Theatre.
This time it is the Thirty Years' War, of which we drag through 16 years after Mother Courage, as she drags her children and her wagon across Europe in pursuit of meager war profits. It just seems like the full 30 years.
"Mother Courage" is more of an epic poem than a play, its value in Brecht's language and philosophy of survival. As Mother Courage herself explains to a hot-headed soldier, you last longer if you don't wear out your voice. And yet this production by Alan Schneider and the touring repetory company - shouts. Instead of courage, it demonstrates bravado. Instead of despair, it voices complaints.
Yet there are times when the shouting stops, and in those moments there is eloquence. One is when Mother Courage marks her son's death with a silent scream. Another is when she bows silently over the body of her daughter. The noisy moments are less effective. First, they run against Mother Courage's expressed strengths: "My aim in life is to get through - me, and my children and my wagon." Worse, they interfer with Brecht's strength: when his fine songs are done at top volum, it is difficult to distinguish the words.
Schneider's staging and Ming Cho Lee's setting, in which tattered curtains are pulled back for each scene, with the action framed across the stage by the low curtain wires, have given the production a linear shape. It is an interesting idea, but combined with the unrelieved dark lines of the characterizations, suggests a grim, editorial-page comic strip. And the Mary Lou Rosato, in the times when she raises her voice and arm too pronouncedly and juts out her chin for a wisecrafk or pipesomke, unfortunately comes off as Mammy Yokum.
It's true that Mammy Yokum personified the same sort of matriarchal staying power on behalf of a family not bright enough to survive alone. But when Brecht wrote about endurance - when he had Mother Courage live on because of her cynical wisdom about the heroics that seduce her children - he was saying something more. Although he wrote it in wartime, the question of personal duty as opposed to the abstract is an difficult in the egocentric '70s as it was in the political '60s or the nesting '50s.