For the majority of us, our most direct contact with war is the upswing in gas prices and a daily smattering of photos and news stories. The battlefield is remote, and it's easy to believe that our lives are war-free zones, even as American forces remain deep in combat. The most remarkable accomplishment of the Public Theater's stirring new production of Bertolt Brecht's war play Mother Courage and Her Children is its determination to take us directly into war and its immediacy. Under the steady direction of George C. Wolfe and in the warm, prickly, and resplendent form of Meryl Streep, Mother Courage steers us into the maelstrom of battle and its very human consequences. Brecht was not chronicling the Iraq war, of course, but the Thirty Years' War in Europe, 1618-48. But even though this is not our war, per se, thanks to Tony Kushner's potent and appealingly comedic new translation, it very well could be. As religious ideologies clash, presumptuous kings are criticized, and the rich receive tax breaks, the audience clearly found the political diatribes to be all too familiar (and worthy of spontaneous, appreciative applause). Rather than focusing on the particulars of regiments and religious allegiances, Brecht accepted war as a largely unknowable, bewildering, and alienating beast and focused on one woman's struggle to make a profit selling goods from her cart while ensuring the survival of her three children.
As Mother Courage attests, however, each of her children has an undeniable "personality defect," and survival is precarious. The eldest, Eilif (Frederick Weller), is recruited into the army and becomes a swaggering, ruthless soldier; her other son, the honest but simple-minded Swiss Cheese (Geoffrey Arend), is hired as a paymaster for the Swiss army; and her only daughter, Kattrin (Alexandria Wailes), is overly sensitive and mute, silenced by a soldier's sexual violation years earlier.
Mother Courage's affection and contempt for her children spins as wildly as her wagon's wheels. In lieu of horses, she harnesses her offspring and berates them candidly to their faces. And yet, as the war snatches them away one by one, she reveals pockets of grief, prisms of love that are quickly absorbed into her surly exterior. For a war profiteer, necessity must strip away sentimentality, but it is eroded neither cleanly nor completely.
For although Streep certainly depicts an anti-maternal figure (swinging and gripping her money pouch with the bravado of a man parading his sizable endowment), she gives us very striking glimpses of Mother Courage's sensitivity, most notably through Jeanine Tesori's visceral music. Tesori (along with gifted orchestrator Bruce Coughlin) has scored Brecht's text with an ambitious palette of sounds that could very well be produced by instruments discovered lying on a war-torn roadside: a quacking trumpet here, a strummed guitar there, and most of all the drums—a persistent, persuasive, and often disturbing beat.
The designers have also adeptly cobbled materials together for this production, from the mismatched wooden shapes of Riccardo Hernandez's set to the sparseness of Marina Draghici's worn costumes. Paul Gallo's lighting is especially evocative, demonstrating the power of warm sunlight to transform even the meanest of environments into a sparkling landscape worthy of a painting.
Each of the performers bravely attacks the material, and Brecht's epic script is peppered with many vibrant supporting characters. Jenifer Lewis gives a muscular performance as the strident prostitute Yvette, while Kevin Kline is affable as the quick-tongued Cook. Although Kline's mellifluous voice often seems a bit too refined for a grubby womanizer (would he really say "discombobulate"?), it is an undeniable pleasure to watch him and Streep exchange barbs with impeccable dexterity. As the curmudgeonly Chaplain, Austin Pendleton is likably tongue-tied as he sputters his lines, and his wood-chopping scene is one of the evening's comic highlights.
Weller delivers a rousing performance of an anthem about a soldier's doomed wife, while Arend is genuine and appealing as the wide-eyed Swiss Cheese. Of the three children, however, Wailes makes the most compelling impression as Kattrin, who (like us) is the silent observer of the action. An experienced deaf actress, Wailes turns in a nuanced, precise, and impassioned performance.
Streep, of course, is why people are camping out overnight for tickets, and she does not disappoint, giving a performance of unbridled range and energy (and beautiful singing, to boot!). The Public is certainly lucky to have her, for Brecht is not easy to sit through in any setting, with his characteristic wordiness and length. Undeniably the hot ticket this summer, Mother Courage is also a hot show, that all too rare example of what theater can and should be—bold, provocative, and timely. Here, war is dangerous—and not that far away.