Motherhood in a time of war

Motherhood in a time of war

By Jordan Wright (Photo/Teresa Wood)

I had a terrible sense of dread about Arena Stage’s production of “Mother Courage and Her Children,” and in the first act I was afraid it was being realized. But we’ll get to that later.

A palpable hush came over the audience when Kathleen Turner appeared on the stage as Mother Courage in a shiny new version of Bertolt Brecht’s drama. Turner is an actress of such import that she brings instant gravitas to whatever role she takes.

Plus, the audience already was pumped up to see her return to Arena Stage after her amazing performance in the 2012 one-woman show, “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.”

If the charismatic Turner personified the adjective “feisty” in that show, she gives new meaning to the word as a mother who survives war by her wit and grit. Set in the 1600s, the play — now a musical — uses the similarities of the Polish-Swedish wars and the Thirty Years’ War to crystallize the futility of all wars, while simultaneously relating a tender story of a mother’s uncompromising duty to her children.

But Mother Courage, who hauls her vendor’s cart to war zones, selling stolen wares to soldiers on both sides — “Wherever there’s corruption, there’s hope,” she asserts — cannot protect her children forever.

“You thought you could live off the war and keep your family out of it,” a sergeant admonishes her while recruiting one of her sons.

Director Molly Smith eschews the orchestra pit. Instead, she enlists actors — for all but the major roles — who double as musicians. Thus the soldiers carry their instruments — accordion, tuba, trumpet or band saw — on stage for all the musical numbers, which gives the play an engagingly surreal dynamic. It is quirky, surprising and totally Brechtian.

Turner is clearly the big draw when she’s on stage, which is nearly the entire two hours and 45 minutes of this satirical tale. Jack Willis is wonderful as the Cook, a pragmatic philosopher who woos Mother Courage even as he’s trying to save his own neck. The same goes for Rick Foucheux as the Chaplain, a sanguine dolt who, in a twist of fate, becomes the Cook’s rival.

“A war always has friends,” he quips, spouting the gallows humor that weaves in and out of this intricate script.

Like Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” which is a slog for the first 100 pages, the play unfolds slowly, thus bringing on my fear that it would be a long night indeed. Yet as soon as composer James Sugg’s glorious music kicked in, the show came to life with songs as full of power and emotion as Broadway’s “Les Miserables.”

Sigh. If only there were more than 11 numbers.

Local actor Erin Weaver does a wonderful job as Kattrin, Mother Courage’s mute daughter, in a performance reminiscent of Patty Duke’s groundbreaking role as Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.” But the real scene stealing is left to Meg Gillentine as Yvette, who electrifies the audience with a slithery tango in the show’s third number, “Each Night in May.”

“Mother Courage and Her Children” runs through March 9 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, D.C. For tickets and information, call 202-488-3300 or visit