When the lights go up on an allusively radical, nearly-bare stage (designed by Patrick Brennan) at the Tina Packer Playhouse at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, we are plunged into Bertold Brecht’s concept of war as a complex, completely human endeavor. And when Anna Frieling ironically nicknamed Mother Courage for her decision to drag her canteen into what would become the 17th Century’s Thirty Years War appears before us in her homely cart, pulled by her two hapless sons, Swiss Cheese (Ryan Winkles) and Eilif (Josh Aaron McCabe), and accompanied by her mute daughter, Kattrin (the deeply expressive Brooke Parks), we aren’t distracted by cannon, we see people. War, Mother Courage sings, is many things to many people, but it demands survival or death of all it touches.
On every level, director Tony Simotes has chosen a brave path. He has staged it as written, resisting the temptation to make its lessons obviously contemporary, and by doing so he has kept it universal. He has assembled a strong ensemble cast, led by the fine Olympia Dukakis, who brings the powerful wisdom of a serious life in the theater, and the experience of having played Mother Courage before. And if her projection on opening night was sometimes uneven, her understanding of her complex character and the predicament of her beleaguered family never flags, or fails to touch the audience. Even as we laugh at her dead-eyed analyses of war and commerce, or want to cry out when she haggles over the amount of the ransom fee for her son’s life, she breaks our hearts. And even as we recognize The Cook’s overwhelming selfishness, John Douglas Thompson draws us to him with his character-driven charm. The Chaplain (Apollo Dukakis) shows himself as less a man of God than a speculator in the broad marketplace of ideas and men. After all else is stripped away, the characters agree that beliefs and those who want to believe them remain.
Arthur Oliver, usually known for the imaginative elegance of his costume design for theater, ballet and opera, has outdone himself in making every article of clothing in this play tell its own eloquent, sometimes painful story. At every turn, he confronts us with the ironic beauty of suffering and decay because heroism no less than deceit and cowardice yields loss. In her defiant strut Yvette (Paula Langton), the classically opportunistic camp follower expresses the spirit and vulnerability of us all. People in all times live, or try to live off war. It’s always all around us: thirty years, one hundred years, ten or twelve. We love war and we hate it. We hardly know how we create it; we seem unable to end it for long. Wars bring wealth to some, a meager living to others, and degradation to many. And this is the lasting appeal of Mother Courage and Her Children so affectingly brought to life at Shakespeare & Company.
Mother Courage is a character not simply torn by contradiction but by internal as well as external conflict. She is not quite lovable, but we can see her try to do the best for herself and her family in terrible situations, even as our minds plead: “pay attention to the human value, Courage, not the numbers.” We leave the theater wiser and stronger for having met her. She is us.