Surely it is the long and difficult war in Iraq that has prompted a revival of interest of Bertolt Brecht's masterpiece Mother Courage and Her Children. From Meryl Streep's ebullient heroine last summer in New York's Central Park to a production at Berkeley Rep, the idea that war is indeed hell is in the air.
Now, the Gamm Theatre has brought Brecht's burr-under-the-saddle play to a tiny stage where Mother Courage does not exactly reign, but where a talented force of actors, composers, and designers have fought this tough-to-do work to a draw.
This Mother Courage is often laugh-out-loud funny. It channels Brecht's drive, his implacable hatred of capitalism, his belief that the Christian church is corrupt beyond redemption, and hurls it all at the audience with both steely resolve and flights of fancy.
The actors, as staged by artistic director Tony Estrella, come at playgoers from all angles. The band (playing the both gritty and whimsical music composed by Charles Cofone) appears mysteriously from behind and within the audience. Doors slide, windows open; everything is a surprise. Near the end, when poor, dear Kattrin, Mother Courage's mute daughter (eloquently, gustily played by Casey Seymour Kim) bangs that famous drum to warn townspeople of yet another terrible attack, the actor is high above the crowd, barely seen in Patrick Lynch's tangled design. But she's heard. And a point is made: somebody, anybody, has got to do something about the horror of war.
That is not going to be Mother Courage herself, of course. The character Brecht wrote was a scarred survivor, a woman who, while admirably wanting to protect her children from devastation, really had no idea how to do it. In Brecht's view, she was a salty, rough, war profiteer; a representative of his belief that generals, higher-ups, and business people loved war for the profit and power it might bring them. Thus, any actor playing Mother Courage must walk a fine line between showing the audience her character's essential rapacity yet not fall into the trap of making her endearing -- a Mary Tyler Moore-type trapped in an awful situation.
In the past, I've only seen one actress successfully walk that tightrope: Linda Hunt at the old Boston Shakespeare Company. At the Gamm, veteran Providence actor Wendy Overly gives us a Mother Courage who is as much a burlesque performer as a battlefield survivor. She has sparky-eyed charm as she trundles her sugar-bowl frame around the stage pulling her wagon. Overly's got the life force: you know her Mother Courage is up to the task of surviving. But you wish that the knife-edge, only occasionally shown to us, was more visible.
Other actors -- Rae Mancini as a rose-cheeked, black gartered hoot of a hooker, and Chris Byrnes as a hollowed-out priest, contribute much to the production. But this Mother Courage, as with them all, lives or dies on its bleak outlook. There's no running away from the essential polemic of the play -- that the world of war is deliberately horrible because there's something to be gained by war as well. That point, in the end, is only partially driven home.
Mother Courage runs Sept. 18-Oct. 22 at the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange St., Pawtucket, R.I. Tickets: (401)723-4266. Website: www.gammtheatre.org.