There have been a lot of different descriptions of Kathleen Turner and her stage work over the years: amazing, classy, beautiful, talented, funny — and thanks to Arena Stage's production of Mother Courage and Her Children, you can add to that list "formidable singer." It's a shame it has taken this long. Turner possesses a deep, sexy voice that adds to the daunting figure that Mother Courage represents.
Bertolt Brecht's bleak tale of a 17th-century single woman and her three children trying to survive during The Thirty Years' War is enhanced by a 13-song score by James Sugg, who added elements of circus-like gypsy music to create twinklings of fun in an otherwise dark setting. Throughout the show, actors come onstage playing instruments, the "band" being a surprisingly welcome addition to the story.
Turner delivers an emotional tour de force, watching her children suffer from different angles of the war and finding hope in the tiniest morsels of life while pushing a cart around, living off the scraps of war. Turner displays great warmth and devotion as Mother Courage looks after her children, never losing the hardness required of such a strong character. That same sex appeal that has served her so well in movies and theater over the years even plays a role here, as Turner makes Mother Courage a bit more coquettish than some other interpretations of the role, to help her character get her way.
As Kattrin, the mute daughter of Mother Courage, Erin Weaver does not utter a single word, but instead uses her expressions and physicality to convey her emotions and frailty. You can read the darkness of the situation on her face and her uncomfortable grunts, and can see hope when her warmth comes out at the sight of a baby. One of the defining moments of the play involves a powerful scene between Turner and Weaver; the young actress certainly holds her own against the strong stage vet.
The rest of Mother Courage's brood comprises Nick Rodriguez as the strong and determined Eilif and Nehal Johsi as the passive Swiss Cheese, two brothers who are different as night and day. Both characters seem to get bogged down by the script, but Rodriguez especially makes the most of his stage time, showing fine vocal form with "Beware, Beware."
The supporting cast is amusing and delightful, especially Jack Willis as the charming cook who flirts with Mother Courage and heads the standout song "Solomon's Song (You're Better Without)." But perhaps the finest voice in the production belongs to Meg Gillentine as Yvette, the army camp prostitute, whose number "Each Night in May" makes you wish that the sultry character had a bit more to say. Gillentine gets some good laughs, as does Rick Foucheux as the Chaplain and Mother Courage's "helper."
Director Molly Smith makes great use of the Fichandler's theater in the round, as Mother Courage pushes her wagon, selling drinks and wares to anyone with money, and soldiers come from all directions to see what she has to offer. The strain of moving the cart mirrors the pain and suffering of the characters. The round stage is incredibly useful when the musicians come and go during songs as it allows for quick entrances and exits. Set designer Todd Rosenthal peppers the stage (and the cart) with war-torn items and creates a convincing landscape of destitution.
Though at times it's hard to sympathize with Mother Courage (but that's the fault, or perhaps intention, of the playwright), the play itself has generally been seen as an anti-war story fusing politics and satire. The use of the band of musicians makes this staging even more captivating and adds to the production's emotional core. Many will come to see Turner in action — and rightly so — but there's so much more to like and enjoy than just its leading actress in this powerful production.