On Stage: Big Mama

REVIEW: blasts through Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’

Kathleen Turner in 'Mother Courage' at Arena Stage. (Photo by Teresa Wood)

Kathleen Turner in ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’ at Arena Stage. (Photo by Teresa Wood)

For anyone who might have thought differently, Kathleen Turner can sing. The one-time smoldering sex symbol of “Body Heat” and “Romancing the Stone,” is appearing in “Mother Courage and Her Children” in the Fichandler Theatre at Arena Stage, and though she isn’t the sex symbol she once was, she still smolders and handles her singing debut like the polished veteran performer she is.

Turner, in the demanding Bertolt Brecht role of Anna Fierling, the slatternly owner of a canteen wagon she drags about the battlefields of the Thirty Years War in the early 17th century, gives a memorable performance. Under ’s direction, Turner, with her husky, sandpaper voice, sings so successfully that if she ever records a CD, it would be worth purchasing.

Smith also found supporting actors who are also musicians, a talent requirement that has increasingly become a significant part of Washington theatrical productions. There are performers who carry their instruments — an accordion, a tuba and a slide trombone — throughout the action as though they too are war-weary itinerants. The gypsy-style music, created and supervised by , cleverly adds a better pacing to the dark, nearly three-hour production.

Smith has cast actors who understand and dominate the roles they are performing, such as Mother Courage’s three children: as Kattrin, as Eilif, and as Swiss Cheese. All three are the children of different men she doesn’t remember. The other key players in the large cast are , the cook; , the chaplain; and as Yvette, the camp follower.

Arena’s Fichandler theater-in-the-round can often be a distraction, but it works effectively as we look down into ’s bleak setting with a tree stump and a colorless, exhausting war-torn landscape. ’s costumes, designed with an unrelieved lack of color, further emphasize Brecht’s vision of the seemingly endless, misery of war. “Mother Courage” is a grim, anti-war statement considered by some to be the greatest play of the 20th century. Brecht reportedly wrote it in anger over Hitler’s invasion of Poland. It is a satire of patriotism and religiosity — anti-fascist and anti-communist, but with the cynical message that war is profitable.

Brecht sees nothing noble about war, and while “Mother Courage” seems somewhat dated in this era where there seems to be an indifference about people dying in conflicts across the world, Smith has adeptly focused Brecht’s genius, with the provocative talent of Turner, into an evening of memorable theater.

Turner has matured beyond the dangerous sex symbol of her early movie star career. She has gained weight, but is still sexy in a more complicated way. She is a woman of obvious intelligence and she and her portrayal of Anna Fierling are virtually inseparable: both are savvy women, complicated and smart and flawed. Brecht’s “Mother Courage” is an opportunist — wars represent a way to make money and she will be there on the fringes of the battlefront turning a profit with her three children helping pull the cart and aiding in her business, with no loyalty to either side of the conflict.

She eventually loses her three children. It is heartrending, but her greed has made her partially culpable since her drive is focused on self-preservation and profit. Her greatest concern is what will she do when peace breaks out? Brecht’s final cynicism is that “Mother Courage,” the ultimate survivor, need not fear for there will always be another war.

Mother Courage and Her Children” continues through March 9, 2014 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets $50-$99, available at 202-488-3300 and online here.

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