Mother Load: A matriarch cleans up during the Thirty Years War. War.
Mother Load: A matriarch cleans up during the Thirty Years War. War.

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“Whenever heroics are called for,” snarls Kathleen Turner in that unmistakable burr-edged baritone of hers, “it’s a sure sign someone’s fucked up.”

Make no mistake, there are fuckups and heroics aplenty in Mother Courage and Her Children, the epic antiwar broadside currently occupying the grim, gray bomb crater at the center of Arena Stage’s in-the-round Fichandler Theater. Turner powers her way through the massive title role on grit and will, surrounded by a well-picked, energetic ensemble cast, in a bitterly cynical story that calls on her character to haul her perpetually weary carcass through the hellscape of various 17th-century European battlefields over the dozen-year course of not one but two religion-fueled wars. You’ll have begun to understand by now, I imagine, why people describe Mother Courage as one of the towering modern dramas. It’s exhausting, angry, and brilliant, and in its way awesome—in the old sense, a thing that inspires a kind of shellshocked awe.

Mother Courage, not to put too fine a point on it, is a war profiteer, a vendor of everything from brandy to boots to bullets, forever dragging her three children—strapping Eilif (Nicholas Rodriguez), empty-headed Swiss Cheese (Nehal Joshi), mute Kattrin (Erin Weaver)—and that iconic cartful of ever-changing merchandise along in the wake of whatever army has the upper hand. She’s not picky, as long as the money’s good, and she’s all sorts of dubious about the motivations and merits of the kings and kaisers and commanders in charge; she’s “in business,” as she likes to say, and a tough negotiator she is, savvy and unsentimental and determined that the conflict that fuels her livelihood won’t suck her and her offspring in.

And yet it inevitably will, because playwright Bertolt Brecht—writing in late 1939, aghast at the potential for a repeat of World War I’s destruction, in a horror over the Nazi invasion of Poland—knew that for even the scrappiest of little people caught between armies, crises come suddenly. “Then the world comes/Then the world breathes/The world learns, you learn/The world knows/The world teaches,” go the weary, jaded lyrics to one of Courage’s songs. (They’re set here, in David Hare’s lean, darkly funny translation, to original music by the Philadelphia-based composer James Sugg, and accompanied onstage by members of the ensemble, wielding tubas, upright basses, trombones, and such.) “The vows you make are the vows you break,” Courage sings caustically, having learned by this point that even a mother’s oath can’t always protect the hapless—that even the sweetness and honesty of an innocent like Swiss Cheese will count for little when money and power are in play.

He won’t be the last of her losses, either, and as Brecht’s sprawling narrative propels Mother Courage from one staggering blow to another, Molly Smith’s intensely stylized staging, inflected by a heightened movement language conceived of by David Leong, frames romantic disappointments, wholesale slaughters, and unexpected outbreaks of peace alike in brisk vignettes that make their points forcefully but never outstay their welcome, even as the evening stretches toward the two-hour-45-minute mark.

Engaging performances from Rich Foucheux, that master craftsman, and an ingratiatingly twinkly Jack Willis—playing a man of the cloth and a man of the kitchen, respectively, and both compromised in his own way—flank Turner’s muscular central turn. Rodriguez’s commanding Eilif and James Konicek’s booming-voiced commander in chief are sexy, richly masculine contributions, counterpointed by an equally sexy and decidedly feminine Meg Gillentine as the camp follower Yvette. Synetic Theater veteran Dan Istrate puts his movement-theater chops to good use in several small but pungent appearances, and Erin Weaver, perhaps most affecting of all, turns in a stirring, sensitive portrait of Courage’s youngest child, Kattrin—mute since birth, forbidden to marry until peacetime, loyal and lonely and unlucky to the end.

And everywhere Brecht’s abrasive, confrontational aesthetic is in evidence. Minimalist set elements descend—sometimes plummet—from catwalks above the playing area, only to vanish into the flies again when their moment has passed. Players freeze in place, dance tangos, blind patrons with high-wattage flashlights, announce time and place and mood in trumpeted stage directions, all in the effort to keep the audience awake, off balance, on edge.

It works—not quite crushingly, not in a way that’s likely to reduce audiences to sobs or bring them roaring to their feet, but in a way sure to send them out drained, meditating on man’s inhumanity to man—and to woman, and to all of our collective children.