Kathleen Turner leads gritty revival of 'Mother Courage and Her Children' at Arena Stage

The theater scene in Washington during this frigid winter has been pretty hot. The latest example is "Mother Courage and Her Children," the classic Bertolt Brecht play in a potent revival at Arena Stage starring Kathleen Turner.

Director Molly Smith, who guides this atmospheric, in-the-round production with a sure hand, has said she wanted to remind people of the "Her Children" in the title so that Brecht's searing anti-war, anti-hypocrisy sentiments are not the only take-homes. That goal has been realized, thanks to Turner's rich portrayal.

I'd be up for any production with this actress in it. She is an instantly arresting presence, as she confirmed in recent years in such works as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" on Broadway and "Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins" at Arena.

Here, she digs deep into the complex character of Mother Courage, a blissfully amoral woman who makes her living off the Thirty Years' War, selling her assorted wares from a well-traveled wagon. This mother drags her kids around with her, but the way she tends to put herself and potential profits ahead of them, her nickname could be "Mommie Merest."

Turner lets you feel the contradictions and competing emotions inside Mother Courage, allowing you to sense smidgens of softness beneath her gruff exterior. All the while, she uses her wonderfully crusty basso profundo voice with great flair — in speech and, for the first time onstage, in song (she sings very respectably).

The well-honed cast includes Erin Weaver as an affecting Kattrin, Mother Courage's mute daughter. The other offspring are vividly performed by Nicholas Rodriguez (Eilif) and Nehal Joshi (Swiss Cheese). There is dynamic work, too, from Jack Willis as the cynical Cook, Rick Foucheux as the conflicted Chaplain, and Meg Gillentine as the hooker Yvette.

The play, performed in the 1990s David Hare translation, features new songs composed by James Sugg (there's a nice nod to Kurt Weill in some of them). Actors play the instruments, making the music all the more integral. 

Gritty sets (Todd Rosenthal) and costumes (Joseph P. Salasovich) give the action a 1930s look. But "Mother Courage" is one of those works that, sadly, fits any era. As the Sargeant in the first scene observes: "It's hard to get a proper war started. Once it starts, there's no stopping it, thank God."

Performances continue through March 9.

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