Mother Courage | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Mother Courage 

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Touchstone Theatre

In Anna Fierling--Mother Courage, who supports herself and her family by selling supplies during the Thirty Years' War--Brecht created a character infamous for her contradictory nature: a capitalist and a nurturer, she was driven to the first role by the second and driven back again. She is known as "Mother Courage" not because of any fierce measures to protect her family but because, as she says, "I was afraid I'd be ruined, so I drove through the bombardment at Riga like a madwoman, with 50 loaves of bread in my wagon. They were getting moldy, what could I do?" One could interpret this as an act of heroism undertaken for her children's good--if she were ruined, how could she feed them? On the other hand, since she puts the three children traveling with her in immediate peril in order to save her business, the act seems not so much maternal as capitalist--especially when there is plenty of bread on hand to wait out the bombardment.

In a successful production of Mother Courage and Her Children no case should be made one way or the other. Mother Courage must be presented in the light that Brecht provides, which is both flattering and unflattering and changes abruptly from one scene to the next. Her pain and her greed must be equally genuine.

Courage (Melinda Moonahan) and her children (two of whom act as draft horses and pull the canteen wagon) move across Eastern Europe in the 1600s, following the war and profiting from it by selling goods to whichever army happens to be winning. Courage ignores the prophetic statement made by a recruiting sergeant: "If you want the war to work for you, you have to give the war its due." A mistake, since he later takes her son Eilif (Timothy Jenkins) into the Swiss Protestant army. Eventually, she pays for the war with all three of her children. When her other son, Swiss Cheese (Robert Simonton), is captured by the Catholic army and shot because she refuses to put all she owns on the bargaining table, her grief is profound but of no ultimate consequence. She continues to profit by the war, and is even increasingly loyal to the war itself, though it deprived her of her son. When her mute daughter, Kattrin (Tonray Ho), is brutalized by soldiers, Courage curses the war with all the fury of an outraged mother; but in the next scene she's reveling in the prosperity the war has provided, and rebuking anyone who dares "spoil the war" for her.

Tellingly, I can't remember this particular moment in Touchstone Theatre's lead-footed, entirely too well-meaning production, in which not a scrap of Brecht's beloved detail is evident. The scene in which Courage praises the war though her daughter's face has been slashed by soldiers should stand out, but it's nowhere in my notes or my memory. In fact there are few notable moments in this production, directed by Phillip Edward Van Lear. This Mother Courage is just a good ol' gal, doing the best she can under darned difficult circumstances. Moonahan plays Courage with a certain amount of snake-oil charm, and her moments of maternal agony are convincing enough to bring a tear to the eye; but Brecht's characters must both attract and repel, and there is very little in Moonahan's Courage that makes one recoil or even question her motives. When she has the chance to abandon her daughter and attain a more secure existence with an army cook, there's no question that this Courage will do the right thing. Moonahan never seriously considers the proposition, though a more genuine Mother Courage would have.

This production cuts a scene in which Courage refuses to give bandages to badly wounded peasants who can't pay for them. It's an important scene, for in it we discover Kattrin's great love of children, a love that later clinches her decision to warn a nearby town about an impending invasion though it costs her her life. Deprived of this scene, Ho must rely on body language and nuance to make her behavior clear to us; as a result she delivers the best performance of the show. As Yvette, a prostitute who's also profiting from the war, Farrel Wilson lays bare a soul that's difficult to contemplate without wincing (and in Brecht's world, that's a compliment to her acting).

None of the principal actors can sing very well, but William Underwood's difficult score still soars on its own from time to time. Luckily, the principal characters are backed by very competent musicians and an ensemble that sings beautifully, having very little else to do.

Since Touchstone touts Mother Courage as a "stirring testament to the triumph of the human spirit" in its poster and press kit, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the company has ignored the blind obstinacy and grasping greed that in Brecht's mind often make up much of the human spirit--especially in Mother Courage, who in his opinion learns nothing from the journey on which he sends her.


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