Imagine a smackdown between Mother Courage and Gypsy's Mama Rose. Like Arthur Laurents' terrifying stage mother, Bertolt Brecht's antiheroine ranks among the most complex female characters written for the 20th-century stage, a latticework of interlocking, ego-driven contradictions that, if performed with moral clarity, can make thrilling, maddening theatre. You wonder who would win.
The Public Theater's Mother Courage and Her Children is translated by Tony Kushner, features Jeanine Tesori's Kurt Weill-like music and George C. Wolfe's swift, presentational direction, and stars — without apology for the word — the incomparable Meryl Streep. But by keeping Brecht's expansive subtitle, "A Chronicle of the Thirty Years' War," Kushner makes clear that Mother Courage isn't about a mother's psychological makeup so much as the makeup of a woman obsessed — you can almost see the drool dripping — with profiting from 17th-century European armies in near-perpetual conflict. In the course of the play (a good example of Brecht's "epic theatre"), 12 years pass during which Mother Courage loses her children — swashbuckling Eilif (Frederick Weller), daffy Swiss Cheese (Geoffrey Arend), and deaf-mute Kattrin (Alexandria Wailes) — to various situations. Of equal note are the quasi-Mephistophelean deals Mother Courage makes to keep her business schemes going. She'll use a cannily romantic cook (an oddly bland Kevin Kline), a corker of a chaplain (Austin Pendleton), a stentorian whore named Yvette (Jenifer Lewis), or she'll simply mangle her morality to meet the moment. She does what she must to survive.
Streep acts the title role like an engulfing typhoon, manifesting good and evil with such jaw-dropping simultaneity that even as you ponder Mother Courage's sanity, you think it insane to question it. Her stage presence is ineffable: Streep can infuse innocuous, incidental lines with stomach-churning acid or heartbeat-raising kindness and make it work. Her physical tics, like constantly wiping her face with her hands, fascinate. And her trademark rangy voice is confined to a lower register; when she sings, you can almost hear her Mama Rose, the mother-monster.
Despite trimming during previews, Kushner's script is reams too long (the production runs three hours) and plagued with literary overindulgences, yet somehow Streep sustains you. Indeed, the last Act 1 song demands capitulation to Kushner's belief in Brecht's idea that the more didacticism and political potshots you have, the more Verfremdungseffekt — the much-debated "alienation effect" that Brecht strove for. Unfortunately for Brecht aficionados (and fortunately for the rest of us), Streep has you quickly hooked.
Wolfe's direction, meanwhile, is all things bright and Brechtian — on-target supertitles and simple staging when Kushner's script seems most egregiously pedantic, what with all those not-so-subtle anti-Bush messages drawing audience applause on cue. Wolfe instead reserves his formidable theatrical cache — pyrotechnics, onstage cars, fog, rain — for less-crucial moments. Courage was needed to remount Mother Courage; courage is required to endure it. Still, Streep acts like she knows you have it. And you know you do.
Presented by the Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater, Central Park (at 81st Street and Central Park West), NYC. Aug. 21-Sept. 4. Tue.-Sun., 8 p.m. (212) 539-8750 or www.publictheater.org.