Considering the stature of the play, the talent of its leading lady, and the prominence of the stage, Meryl Streep’s Mother Courage in Central Park may be the greatest piece of miscasting you’ll ever have the good fortune to see. Bertolt Brecht’s famous character drags a wagon full of wares across the battlefields of Europe, vainly struggling to get her children through the Thirty Years’ War alive. And here is Streep, shouting and singing, tearing around the Delacorte in a soldier’s cap and battered skirt, unassailably the greatest actress of her generation. She has to be, to take on a canonical role that fits her so imperfectly and still deliver a performance that lands so well.
The issue isn’t a lack of ability, God knows. Often called the female King Lear, Mother Courage demands everything of an actress—physical and vocal prowess, dramatic and comic expertise—and at the darkest moments of Brecht’s play, Streep does a couple of things I’m sure I’ll never forget. Her problem, if you can call it that, is a natural radiance, some eerie luminosity that’s been with her from the beginning; she remains the best living proof that stars are lit from within. The roles that have always seemed like the biggest reach for her are the downtrodden, hardscrabble, rough-and-tumble types. Alas, Mother Courage, the war-ravaged “hyena of the battlefield,” may be the most rough-and-tumble woman in all of drama.
It’s not an easy role to play, nor an easy play to stage. But in spite of the difficulties, the production around Streep develops an unsettling power. Two days after seeing the show, I find it resonating more and more. To some extent, that’s the hum you get from any encounter with a play as great as Brecht’s. Written in 1939, while he was in exile from the Nazis, the work uses Courage and her doomed children to show how war turns positive virtues into fatal liabilities, and ensures that the safest life is an amoral, self-serving one. Crucially, it also contradicts itself: Despite the depredations of war, Courage and others love it, and declare that in peacetime, the injustices would be even worse.
Yet the play’s appeal also owes something to the way the Public Theater treats it. To an extraordinary degree, the show is the product of overlapping relationships that date back 10, 20, 30 years. Call it the Public/Angels Entente, a group of artists who have worked in and around Joe Papp’s theater and were responsible for the great public-minded play of their generation, Angels in America. They are dedicated to the idea of a political theater with wide popular appeal and have reached the stages in their various careers where they can put such shows before an audience. At least, they can try.
You can see this impulse at work in director George C. Wolfe’s approach to the play. Set in an unspecific time, his production adopts the familiar trappings of Brechtian drama, devices that call attention to the show’s artifice: Song titles are projected on a beam overhead; scenes are announced with the same flat delivery whether Courage is about to lose a child or part with four shirts. Everything’s done in weathered wood, including the revolving platform at center stage. Then, over and around Riccardo Hernández’s set, Wolfe starts laying on the showbiz.
A bombed-out building at the back of the stage bursts into flames, a whole squad of troops—for the second time on this stage this summer—slump melodramatically to their deaths, and from time to time, loud cannon fire explodes to one side; the people at the Beresford cannot be happy about this. Mostly the spectacle helps. The machinery that whirls onstage whenever the platform starts to spin adds to the grim, dehumanizing vibe. But when Wolfe sends a Jeep clattering into view or gives the last death in the show an extra touch of stage magic, he only detracts from the heartbreak.
In interviews, Tony Kushner, who provided a new translation for the show, has said he wanted to restore the colloquial power of Brecht’s original, to find a way to engage a modern American audience. Step one, apparently, is swearing. Far more than earlier translations by Eric Bentley, Ralph Manheim, or David Hare, Kushner’s script is laced with profanity. This is soldierly dialogue for a war play as Mamet might have written it, where the F-bombs drop like, well, bombs.
Kushner has added some jokes to Brecht’s script, pretty good ones. “I’m not broke,” says the Cook (Kevin Kline), Mother Courage’s lecherous sometime companion. “I’m between money.” Kline got a solid laugh with that line on Saturday night, then had some trouble. Try reading this out loud: “They give me roots and boots for the soup pot then they throw the consequences piping hot in my face.” Possibly you got tongue-tied on Kushner’s rhymes, roots/boots/soup and pot/hot. On Saturday night, Kline sure did.