Seana McKenna shows pluck as Mother Courage.
MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN by Bertolt Brecht, translated by David Edgar (Stratford Festival). In rep at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 21. $20-$135. 1-800-567-1600, stratfordfestival.ca. See listings. Rating: NNN
The Stratford Festival's theme this year of "madness: minds pushed to the edge" finds full expression in Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage And Her Children, an iconic anti-war play that gets a strong, if slow-to-catch-fire production.
Written by Brecht in response to the rise of fascism, the episodic play recounts the experiences of the eponymous figure (Seana McKenna), who profits from selling goods during the Thirty Years' War of 1618-1648.
In 12 scenes that span as many years, with dates and locations introduced by placards, the archetypal matriarch loses her children to some aspect of the war and yet keeps on truckin' with her vendor's cart.
The play's coldness is intentional; Brecht asks us not to empathize with the characters but to focus on the themes. It's hard not to think of the corporate profiteering and exploitation of war and disaster recounted in Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine while watching the story unfold.
A director's job is to make the play involving without being too cerebral, and Martha Henry has largely succeeded. Her actors deliver their lines with clarity and commitment. Ben Carlson and Geraint Wyn Davies are especially fine as contrasting characters - one a chaplain, the other a cook - smitten with the titular mother.
And Carmen Grant is terrific as the mute daughter, Kattrin, whose defiant drumming in the penultimate scene - a precursor to Gunter Grass's percussion-obsessed boy? - is a highlight.
McKenna handles the huge demands of the title role with skill, leading her wagon along every inch of the Tom Patterson's thrust stage and letting us imagine her ambiguous character's conflicting emotions.
If the journey is a bit of a slog, it's because the anti-war message isn't as fresh as it must have been 75 years ago. Not as fresh, but just as relevant.