A big black pit is the fitting landscape in which director Molly Smith situates her creditable new production of “Mother Courage and Her Children,” Bertolt Brecht’s bleak and sprawling fable about a desperate woman who, feeding off the scraps of war, manages to lose everything.
Aptly enough, too, the character of epic pragmatism who drags her cart of wares around this hole, burrowed into Arena Stage’s Fichandler space, is played by an actress of epic force herself: Kathleen Turner. Squarely built and gravelly voiced, Turner’s Courage looks as if she has been molded from the rough earth she traverses, hawking bread and boots to soldiers and struggling on the fringes of a brutal, endless war for no other cause than survival.
“We are in business,” Turner growls, in the no-nonsense tone she maintains for all two hours and 45 minutes of a production that does as well as might be expected with Brecht’s stark agitprop, a style for which American theater companies rarely seem completely at home, or naturally equipped. If the evening never really ignites, it does, like its leading lady, rumble along satisfactorily with the aid of a roster of capable supporting players that includes Jack Willis, Erin Weaver, Nicholas Rodriguez, Rick Foucheux, Nehal Joshi and Meg Gillentine.
Many of them have acted on Arena’s trademark in-the-square stage before, and that experience pays off in a version of this widely admired play — often named as one of the most compelling theater pieces of the 20th century — which is notable for its technical flair. The set design by Todd Rosenthal, with retractable gizmos all stowed in plain sight, skillfully reflects Brecht’s notion of raw, transparent theatricality, and Joseph P. Salasovich’s peasant costumes and military uniforms deftly locate the characters in a desolate cartoon. A few audibility issues arise, especially during the production’s dozen or so songs, when some in the cast are called on to provide the accompaniment onstage.
The music to Brecht’s lyrics composed for this production by James Sugg is well sung, particularly by Rodriguez — the fine Curly of Smith’s 2010 “Oklahoma!” — who here plays Eilif, the glory-seeking son seduced by the battlefield. (As you can surmise, the Thirty Years’ War, the 17th-century Middle European bloodbath in which the play is set, proves tragically uncharitable to all of Mother Courage’s brood.)
Perhaps, though, an atmosphere redolent of urgent consequences proves elusive not through the fault of any onstage ingredient, but the lack of one hovering just offstage. Brecht wrote “Mother Courage” at the start of World War II, a response to the rise of Fascism but also to the ghastly carnage of World War I. The play is a chronicle of collateral damage, of the tragedies befalling those who eke out lives on the margins of wholesale slaughter. In its focus on a civilian, its antiwar perspective contrasts that of another play recently in Washington dealing with the Thirty Years’ War, Friedrich Schiller’s “Wallenstein.” That 1798 historical drama, produced last year by Shakespeare Theatre Company in a new adaptation by Robert Pinsky, concerned the titular German general who, disillusioned with the war, runs catastrophically afoul of his emperor.
Morally speaking, the ambiguously named Mother Courage is the more compromised and yet relatable character: Eager to make a buck, she blithely switches loyalties in the war, alternatingly raising a Swedish or a Polish flag over her wagon, depending on which army is in a better position to fill her meager coffers. Turner adroitly conveys Courage’s consummate neutrality, offering a portrait of a wily woman who cynically banks on humankind’s propensity for self-destruction — and in the process badly miscalculates the personal cost.
One can only imagine the wallop that this play, with its potent evocations of the grinding agonies inflicted on every corner of a continent, might have packed in a European theater in the 1940s. For a contemporary American audience — isolated for the most part by geographic distance and the desensitizing filters of the news media from the current war to which its taxes go — “Mother Courage” perforce has to feel like a more abstract enterprise. That is not an argument against staging it, but rather, an explanation of why the effect of the Arena production bears some resemblance to that of a highly polished museum exhibit.
Admirably, Smith, using a translation by playwright David Hare, resists the temptation to lacquer on any commentary of her own or to make Courage any more honorable than Brecht intended. We watch “Mother Courage” as we might the account of any predictable losing battle, not with electric outrage or disgust but with a sense of mournful respect and resignation.
Mother Courage and her Children, by Bertolt Brecht in a translation by David Hare. Directed by Molly Smith. Original music, James Sugg; movement, David Leong; sets, Todd Rosenthal; costumes, Joseph P. Salasovich; lighting, Nancy Schertler; sound, Roc Lee; wigs, Anne Nesmith. With Monalisa Arias, Lise Bruneau, Jed Feder, Rayanne Gonzales, Jacobi Howard, Dan Istrate, Nathan Charles Koci, James Konicek, Jesse Terrill, John Leslie Wolfe. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Tickets, $50-$99. Through March 9 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.