Both on stage and screen, Streep's performances usually fall into one of two categories: those in which she virtually vanishes into the role, and those in which she can be seen employing her fierce intelligence to develop a persuasive array of character attitudes. Her Mother Courage, constantly fighting for her own survival and the survival of her offspring, falls noisily into the second category. She has clearly prepared the role as if she's been carefully furnishing a room, and the result is a livable if not ideal space. As the indomitable Courage travels back and forth across central Europe during Brecht's idea of the Thirty Years War, the resourceful Streep is part fishwife, part carnival barker, and part Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd. (The DreamWorks folks who've just announced Johnny Depp for their 2008 Sweeney Todd film must have Streep at the top of their wish list.)
Not surprisingly, Streep holds nothing back as Mother Courage, constantly bargaining for the lives of the children whom she herself mocks. She differs significantly from the usual portrait of Courage in that she only exposes weariness when the fight for her children is lost to the war's continuing battles. From the outset, Streep is in your face. Her basic stance is feet firmly planted on Riccardo Hernandez's bruised-battlefield stage; her arms gesture busily, and her face is fixed in a withering sneer. At the end of many outbursts, a heh-heh-heh laugh hangs out of her mouth like a stale cigarette butt. She throws herself into the action as if she's a grenade with the pin pulled, never more so than during the many songs -- music by Jeanine Tesori, with a strong infusion of Kurt Weill-style oom-pah -- in which she expresses her disgust and determination.
In Mother Courage, Brecht doesn't so much declare that war is evil as he points out the undeniable reality that many people want war simply for the profits provided. In any treatment of this play, Mother Courage, standing in for war profiteers right up to the present-day -- hey there, Dick Cheney and Halliburton! -- must remain central, which Streep certainly does. But otherwise, Kushner's revision is disappointingly mundane, and the many lame jokes are surprising. A segment in which Mother Courage, the Cook (Kevin Kline), and the Pastor (Austin Pendleton) chat about a monarch's foibles is meant to conjure thoughts of George W. Bush, but its obviousness undercuts any impact.
Nor is the revered drama directed with muscle by George C. Wolfe, returning to the Public for the first time since he abdicated the artistic director's throne a year ago. He and the rest of the cast, including Frederick Weller and Geoffrey Arend as Courage's sons Eilif and Swiss Cheese, Alexandria Wailes as her mute daughter Kattrin, and Jenifer Lewis as keyed-up hooker Yvette, give the impression that they're still trying to figure out what approach to settle on. That's a shame, because there's no excuse for this Mother Courage to be so timid.