Eric Simonson's epic Steppenwolf revival of Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage" is a theatrical production completely overtaken by real-life events.

Eric Simonson’s epic Steppenwolf revival of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage” is a theatrical production completely overtaken by real-life events. Simonson’s intention is to create a powerful, immediate evening of theater, and as a result the tale of an entrepreneur living off the very war that eats her family alive is confounding and disturbing viewing for auds in a country contemplating combat.

The show, locked in well before Sept. 11, is a stirring if inconsistent production with a number of well-crafted — even harrowing — moments that would be immensely powerful at any time. But on opening weekend, at least, it was painfully clear that the context for the work had drastically changed and the actors were unsure where they now stood.

Audience members could be seen squirming in their seats as theatrical bombs fell in the theater, and unusually fraught silence greeted the Chaplain’s lines about the ruling classes manipulating combat for their own economic and ideological ends, regardless of the impact on the poor suckers doing the actual fighting.

It could be argued that such unintentional applicability only makes for more provocative theater. And when we hear the clear, emotive voice of Bruch Reed singing “Home Is Where the Heart Is” from offstage, it’s impossible for the eyes not to moisten — even if we don’t entirely understand why. Still, such sentiment does not entirely substitute for the cast’s lack of sure-footedness.

They likely would have been more secure if the production had been placed firmly in the time of the Thirty Years War. In general we seem to be in period, yet there’s a prologue suggesting 20th-century military action, the music is contemporary and the sounds of modern warfare echo at the powerful close.

Simonson neither sets himself loose from the standard interpretations (seen here in David Hare’s translation) nor pays the usual Brechtian homage. There’s a mix of realistic and stylized acting, without clear thematic reason. The director generally has played down the traditionally metatheatrical qualities of the work (there are no actors sitting around in the wings) in favor of a traditional milieu that encourages empathy.

Music by T Bone Burnett and Darrell Leonard is a clever hybrid of European folk and American blues in minor keys. It could certainly lean much further toward the blues — which is where the performers are most secure — but it feels like the composers held back, perhaps worried by direct anachronism.

In the title role, Lois Smith has great potential and moments of striking brilliance. She’s a defiantly gritty and invariably honest actress uninterested in lyrical excesses or Medea-like emoting that often afflict Mothers Courage. She’s best in the intense scene in which she must deny knowledge of her son, even as his corpse is paraded before her. Smith’s Courage is, first and foremost, a worker.

And yet Smith is strangely hesitant for much of the show. She seems not to trust the production or her own role therein. Sally Murphy makes bolder choices for her highly intense Katterine, and many work well. But Courage and her kids don’t seem to belong in the same universe.

In production, Brechtian didacticism rarely blends well with subtlety. For that reason and others, Nicholas Rudall’s caustic Chaplain is the clearest performance of the night — a bold turn for times that suddenly seem to demand bold responses.

Mother Courage

Steppenwolf Theater, Chicago; 510 seats; $50 top

Production

A Steppenwolf Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Bertolt Brecht. Directed by Eric Simonson. Original music, T Bone Burnett and Darrell Leonard.

Creative

Sets, Allen Moyer; lights, Kenneth Posner; costumes, James Schuette; sound, Barry G. Funderburg; production stage manager, Laura D. Glenn. Opened Sept. 23, 2001. Reviewed Sept. 22. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

Mother Courage - Lois Smith
Kattrin - Sally Murphy
Eilif - Ian Brennan
Swiss Cheese - Joe Foust
Cook - Robert Breuler
Chaplain - Nicholas Rudall
Yvette - Amy Warren
With: Sara Antunovich, Eric Aviles, Hans Fleischman, Jesse Geiger, David Gray, Russell Heller, Leonard Kraft, Elizabeth Levy, Michael Macias, Taj McCord, Bruch Reed, Wendy Robie, John Sierros, Jeff Still, E. Milton Wheeler, Jay Whittaker, Larry Yando.
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