After an acclaimed fall 2012 run of Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage, two-time Tony nominee Kathleen Turner (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith knew they wanted to reprise their partnership. "We were sending scripts back and forth and reading and reading," Turner recalls. "Finally, [Molly] called me one day and said, 'What about Mother Courage?'"
Penned in 1939 by prolific German dramatist and poet Bertolt Brecht as the world teetered on the brink of war and as Nazism enveloped Germany, Mother Courage and Her Children has transcended the barriers of time and culture, taking its place in the dramatic canon as one of the most influential theatrical protestations of war. Turner plays the unflaggingly pragmatic and powerful title character, who, living in the midst of the Thirty Years' War of the 17th century, seeks to profit from the carnage (for both her own sake and that of her three children) by trading items with soldiers from a massive cart to which she finds herself permanently bound.
Not only will Turner be taking on this monumental role for the first time, she will be tackling it while making her singing debut, performing several ballads while her fellow actors, in true Brechtian fashion, march around the stage with instruments of their own. TheaterMania spoke with the actress as she prepares to present this political epic in the epicenter of American government. She comments on the particular poignancy of the production's location and shares her thoughts on war, the social power of theater, and the similarities between works of Brecht and Edward Albee.
What was your first introduction to Mother Courage?
Like many of the pieces that I think I want to play at some point in my life, I've never seen it performed. If I think I might do something, then I don't want anybody else in my head, so I've only read it — but [I've] read it a lot. I think it is the most effective [and] powerful anti-war play ever written. Mother Courage is one of the roles that probably every substantial actress wants to tackle — once they're old enough, of course. In fact, I am proud to say I am actually a little young for Mother Courage, which is probably one of the few roles I can say that about. [laughs]
Was it the kind of play that resonated with you instantly or did you have to come back to it to appreciate it?
I had to come back to it. What struck me the first time I read it in my youth was it put me off. I found it alienating, which in fact is part of Brecht's intention.
Do you think audiences seeing this play for the first time might also initially feel a little put off?
I have a feeling this is going to be sort of the battle it was for [Who's Afraid of] Virginia Woolf? So many people had seen the film in which [Richard] Burt[on] and [Elizabeth] Taylor were just two drunks screaming at each other, [so] they came to the theater with great reluctance. And then of course [they] discovered that there were these huge laughs throughout the play and these characters were actually rather delightful. So I fear we're going to have that same sort of resistance: Oh god, it's Brecht. And in fact, it's brilliantly entertaining.
And you'll be singing in the production, as well. Has that aspect been daunting?
I happen to believe that you have to be willing to take things to the point where you might fail or you don't find out what you can do. So I said, "All right, this will be my singing debut!"
Do you think that performing the play in Washington, D.C., the nation's capital, adds extra weight to the production?
Absolutely. This piece [is] about war being an industry of its own. We are in the city that determines such things. This is where it's manufactured. But more than that, I think it is so pertinent to our time. It's about the separation of wealth. The people with wealth who seemingly command and create this state of war are the least injured. It's the peasants and the little people who not only lose their lives but lose their livelihoods that are the ones truly destroyed by war. I think that's a lesson we need to think about more now.
Has the meaning of this play changed for you over time as an American who has lived through a number of the country's major military conflicts?
I think when I was much younger I believed more in a general sense of patriotism — that if your country said to fight, you fought, and that was proof of what you believed in. I think since Vietnam there has been so much doubt cast on the motives and the abilities of the commanders and the commanders-in-chief that it makes sense to question now. I think that has grown hugely over the past forty, fifty years. [Today, there are] people praying that we don't go into Syria, that we don't go into Libya, [that] we not sacrifice our people for a war that cannot be won. This level of resistance and questioning is higher than it's ever been in our history, and I think that's right [to question].
Do you believe that theater has the power to inspire change?
Yes. Theater has an extraordinarily important place in our culture. [It] is one of the few places left in our worlds where you physically experience being part of humanity. When you walk into a theater…you walk in with a willingness to trust. You sit down closer to a stranger than you ever would in your own home. You don't know this person [with whom] you're sharing an armrest. You don't know their beliefs or their background or anything. And yet you consent. And as the play goes on (if it's any good), you find you start to breathe together. You laugh at the same time. You hold your breath at the same time. You start to become something greater than an individual. And there is an amazing wonderful power in that.