In “Macbeth,” the first of the Public Theater’s summer presentations, war was a backdrop to the play’s psychological drama. In “Mother Courage and Her Children,” it’s the main event, its relevance to the Iraq conflict amplified in Tony Kushner’s vigorous new translation. But the chief attraction here is less the Bertolt Brecht play than the actress incarnating its indomitable title character. The last time crowds camped out in similar pre-dawn vigils to secure tickets to a Shakespeare in the Park presentation was for Meryl Streep’s 2001 appearance in “The Seagull.” Her return to the same stage five years later doesn’t disappoint.
A plucky profiteer who seizes the commercial opportunities of war while trying — and failing — to keep her three children out of it, Mother Courage is a famously difficult role fraught with contradictions between its mercenary and maternal aspects, between undaunted pragmatism and obtuse refusal to learn from bitter experience.
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Is Streep a perfect fit for the part? On the surface, no. She’s too refined and delicate to be a natural for coarsened survivor Anna Fierling, nicknamed Courage after she drove her merchandise cart through the cannon fire at Riga. But from the moment she comes into view, yelling “Retail!” as she hawks her wagonload of wares in song, Streep’s Mother Courage is riveting. This is a full-bodied, swaggering characterization, emboldened by fierce intelligence, quicksilver emotional shifts, inexhaustible physicality and, most of all, sly humor.
Despite modern language peppered with profanity and occasional visual anachronisms, the production sticks to the original 17th century setting during Europe’s Thirty Years War. But whether it’s intentional, George C. Wolfe’s direction and Riccardo Hernandez’s splintery wooden design echo the gritty frontier world of “Deadwood.” And Streep’s Courage could almost be that show’s Calamity Jane with the addition of shrewdness to back up her ballsy nature and carefully hidden compassion.
Brecht rigorously imposed the view that theater should engage intellectually, not emotionally. Without betraying that principle or sentimentalizing the tough-minded title character, Wolfe, Kushner and Streep have nonetheless mined the pathos of a woman cynically aware that bravery, honesty and kindness can be handicaps during wartime yet unable to prevent her children from falling as a product of those very weaknesses.
It’s hard to be unmoved by Streep’s silent tears, her face hauntingly framed by an intimate spotlight, as she’s forced to deny any link to her son Swiss Cheese (Geoffrey Arend), his dead body splayed by soldiers across the hood of a jeep. Her instant transition to barking outrage over the loss of her inventory makes the tragedy cut deeper still.
But Wolfe saves the real gut-wrenching power for the final scenes. As Courage kneels over the corpse of her mute daughter Kattrin (Alexandria Wailes), folding the girl’s hands and wrapping her body, she sings an unaccompanied lament that becomes increasingly lacerating, escalating into a keening, almost animalistic wail.
Though there’s some argument over exactly when Brecht began work on the play, it’s generally conceded that “Mother Courage” was intended to serve as a warning to Germans during the dark time of Hitler’s rise. Its message was that even those who welcomed the social and economic shakeup of war would not go unscathed.
The playwright’s didactic style is heightened at times by Kushner’s political agenda. In crowd-pandering lines such as “It’s expensive, liberty, especially when you start exporting it to other countries,” he leans a little heavily on the Iraq connection. But the contemporary relevance to war and its futility is evident throughout the play, generally in subtler strokes.
There’s a poignant truth, for example, about the fallout from the military mindset in the paradox that Courage’s reckless eldest son, Eilif (Frederick Weller), is condemned for carrying out in peacetime exactly the kind of feat that made him a hero during war.
With its inorganic, vaudevillian songs and key action stated in advance of each sharply differentiated scene, the episodic play largely defies fluid presentation. Wolfe and Kushner have nevertheless fashioned the ambling narrative into a reasonably trenchant three hours, albeit with some sluggish patches.
Reteaming with Kushner after “Caroline, or Change,” Jeanine Tesori provides atonal music containing few readily accessible melodies but in keeping with the tradition of Brecht collaborators like Kurt Weill and Paul Dessau. The musical high point is Streep’s “The Song of the Great Capitulation,” in which Courage spits out her bitter reconciliation to a life of scant rewards.
Stepping in after Christopher Walken’s abrupt exit during rehearsals, Kevin Kline only really commands attention in his final scene as the Cook. There’s a good-humored sexual chemistry in his stage rapport with Streep and a lovely, melancholy air to the scene in which Courage refuses to abandon Kattrin and accept Cook’s offer to settle down. Kline does a fine job on “The Song of Solomon,” a jaded lesson on the inherent dangers of accepted virtues like wisdom, sacrifice and obedience. The song’s sting is enhanced by Streep looking on in a snowstorm, the wiseass feistiness suddenly drained from her bereft face.
Austin Pendleton smirks his way through the role of the hypocritical Chaplain who hitches himself to Courage’s wagon. Like Kline, he only fully registers in one scene, a deftly played to-and-fro with Streep in which the Chaplain angles to move their relationship up a notch. He is dismissed by Courage, who has nothing to give: “There’s no room inside me for private dramas.”
Weller, Arend and Wailes all make solid impressions, and Jenifer Lewis delivers a big, enjoyably vampy turn as brassy prostitute-made-good Yvette.
But inevitably, it’s Streep who dominates every scene, her control, focus and energy never faltering in a performance made of both broad strokes and the most nuanced of insights, of wicked comic asides and flashes of pain beneath the bravado. As she shoulders the ropes at the end of the play and struggles to pull her wagon resolutely on, empty-eyed and unaided, the production cements its cumulative impact, quietly articulating its timely point that nobody wins in war.