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Kathleen Turner Triumphs in Mother Courage and Her Children – Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
February 11, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times

Kathleen Turner as Mother Courage in Mother Courage and Her Children - Photo by Teresa Wood

Kathleen Turner as Mother Courage in Mother Courage and Her Children – Photo by Teresa Wood

I had a terrible sense of dread about Arena Stage’s production of Mother Courage and Her Children… and in Act One it was coming true.  But we’ll get to that later.

There was a palpable hush that came over the audience when Kathleen Turner appeared on the stage as Mother Courage in a shiny new version of Bertolt Brecht’s drama, performed in Fichandler’s theater-in-the-oblong space.  Turner is an actress of such import that she brings instant gravitas to whatever role she plays and the audience was already pumped up to see her return to Arena Stage since last August’s one-woman show, Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins. 

If the charismatic Turner personified “feisty” in that show, she gives new meaning to the word as a mother who survives the war by her wit and grit.  Set in the 1600’s, the play, now a musical, uses the similarities of the Polish-Swedish War and the Thirty Years’ War to crystallize the futility of all wars, while at the same time expressing a tender story of a mother’s uncompromising duty to her children doled out with regular infusions of tough love.  But Mother Courage who hauls her vendor’s cart to war zones selling stolen wares to the soldiers on both sides “Wherever there’s corruption, there’s hope,” she avers, cannot protect her children forever.  “You thought you could live off the war and keep your family out of it,” the Sergeant admonishes her while recruiting one of her sons.

Director Molly Smith eschews the orchestra pit recruiting actors, for all but the major roles, who are also musicians.   To that end 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… quirky, surprising and totally Brechtian.

(L to R) Kathleen Turner as Mother Courage and Jack Willis as the Cook in Mother Courage and Her Children - Photo by Teresa Wood

(L to R) Kathleen Turner as Mother Courage and Jack Willis as the Cook in Mother Courage and Her Children – Photo by Teresa Wood

Turner, who makes her singing debut, is clearly the big draw when she is on stage, which is nearly the entire two hours and forty-five minutes of this 1939 satirical tale.  Jack Willis is wonderful as The Cook, a pragmatic philosopher who woos Mother Courage even as he is trying to save his own neck  – – ditto 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… a slog to get into until you get past the first hundred pages when it becomes impossible to put down… 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 revealed songs with the power and haunting quality of Broadway’s Les Miserables.  Sigh.  If only there were more than eleven numbers.

(L to R) Erin Weaver as Kattrin, Rick Foucheux as the Chaplain, Meg Gillentine as Yvette and Kathleen Turner as Mother Courage - Photo by Stan Barouh

(L to R) Erin Weaver as Kattrin, Rick Foucheux as the Chaplain, Meg Gillentine as Yvette and Kathleen Turner as Mother Courage – Photo by Stan Barouh

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 with a slithery tango in the show’s third number, “Each Night in May”.

Through March 9th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Kathleen Turner (center) as Mother Courage and the cast of Mother Courage and Her Children - Photo by Teresa Wood

Kathleen Turner (center) as Mother Courage and the cast of Mother Courage and Her Children – Photo by Teresa Wood

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