Kathleen Turner, veteran of Hollywood and Broadway, stars in the title role of “Mother Courage and Her Children,” the satiric, anti-war play by Bertolt Brecht at Washington’s Arena Stage from February 7 to March 9, 2014. Last year, her solo turn there in “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins” drew packed houses and raves for her spot-on performance as the opinionated columnist from Texas. That collaboration with Molly Smith, Arena’s Artistic Director, sparked their mutual admiration.
From the outset of her career, Ms. Turner has been zealous about crafting new and unique characters with no repetitions. She implanted her distinctive aura in hit films “Body Heat,” “Romancing the Stone,” “Prizzi’s Honor,” “The War of the Roses” and “Peggy Sue Got Married,” the latter earning her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. On stage, she received Tony Award nominations for her interpretation of two spitfires, Maggie in “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof” and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” Her voice-overs include the seductive Jessica Rabbit in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Itinerant canteen worker Mother Courage is like no other character she has portrayed.
“I adored portraying Molly Ivins because I was familiar with her from working with People For the American Way (PFAW) and the ACLU,” Ms. Turner said. “It so happened that Ann Richards (former governor of Texas) had an apartment in my building in New York and I would often see them there together. I so enjoyed working with Molly Smith during that production that she and I began thinking about other plays we could do together. Her suggestion of ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’ seemed like the perfect choice to perform in Washington.
“Mother Courage is very fiercely a mother. She must operate in a bare bones situation, always thinking: what do I have to do to survive? Her choices are hard, so she struck a chord with me. Like her, I’ve had to deal with many problems, such as rheumatoid arthritis, and I’ve done the best I knew how.
“The story takes place during wartime and resonates today. Brecht portrays war as absolutely useless and a terrible waste. No one benefits. Mother Courage is in a situation caused by people who decided to wage war, but it’s the little people at the bottom – the peasants and those who carry out the warfare – whose lives are destroyed. I find it disturbing that the Afghanistan War is still going on today, and yet there is no evidence of it in Washington.”
While exiled in the United States during the 1939 German invasion of Poland, Brecht penned “Mother Courage and Her Children” to express his opposition to Fascism and Nazism. It is regarded by many as the greatest anti-war play of the 20th century for its scathing depiction of wars and the corruption of those who participate in them. A prolific writer, Brecht produced 54 plays and hundreds of poems, along with fiction and theoretical works. By the time he wrote this play, he had created distinctive ways of conveying concepts to his audiences. Among these are placards to announce upcoming scenes, a single prop to represent many similar items and songs to emphasize the themes and action. For this production, composer James Sugg wrote thirteen pieces of original music to lyrics by British translator David Hare.
“Molly updated the play from the Thirty Years War of the 17th Century to a more contemporary time, World War I through World War II, so I chose a Gypsy punk style to suit the period,” Mr. Sugg said. “The songs don’t work like musical theater. Instead, Brecht stops cold, then he may insert a parable. One sung by the chaplain has an American folk or Johnny Cash-like feel, while the Cook, a bawdy character, sings one reminiscent of Cab Calloway. I love Kurt Weill, so this is a nod to him. My intent is to embrace a break from action and nail a song that’s exactly right for the moment, brings immediate energy to the action and provides an arc throughout the evening.
“The characters follow the army like Gypsies, carrying their instruments as they go, so we hand-picked actors who are also musicians. The accordion is at the heart, along with a tuba, a viola, a trumpet, a trombone, a bass, a bongo and a musical saw. It’s not often you find someone who plays a musical saw, but we did, and this one has central moments.
“Kathleen Turner is one of five characters who sing. Although this is her professional singing debut, she is a natural musician. She learned her songs with a vocal coach and when she showed up at rehearsal, she sang and interpreted each song perfectly. She even sings one of them while standing on a moving cart.”
“I’ve always avoided musicals,” Ms. Turner said. “When I started out, no leading lady had a low voice.
Everything was written for sopranos. My ex-husband had a band and I’ve always sung for fun, but I didn’t want to compete with my daughter, Rachel, who has an extraordinary singing talent. The songs in this show are appropriate because they’re tough, Several are almost sarcastic in the way they talk about what God wants for the suffering people.”