The Classic Stage Company made news for the wrong reasons at the turn of the year when Tonya Pinkins, who was to star in the upcoming “Mother Courage and Her Children,” departed the production during previews after clashing with longtime CSC artistic director Brian Kulick.
Pinkins (“Jelly’s Last Jam”) publicly argued that the famous role in Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 anti-war drama about a canteen woman determined to make her living in the midst of the Thirty Years' War, had been “neutered” by CSC, after being created through “the filter of the white gaze.”
An untruncated version of the Tony winner’s unusual statement can be found here.
Few of us are privy to changes that may have been made behind the scenes in the intervening few weeks, but I found the “Mother Courage” that finally opens tonight at CSC—with five days left before it closes—to be a realistic story of an opportunistic woman trying to balance the needs of her family against the unknowable travails of life in wartime.
Broadway actress Kecia Lewis, who succeeded Pinkins in the role, certainly doesn’t read as “delusional.” "Delusional" is the word Pinkins and Kulick hit an impasse over. Pinkins said she opposed the director's view of Brecht's heroine as "a delusional woman trying to do the impossible." "Why must the black Mother Courage be delusional?" wrote Pinkins, who described the canteen woman as "the epitome of every ... immigrant woman hustling to provide for her family.”
Kulick acknowledged using the "strong" word to characterize a "potential end point" for Mother Courage, observing that Brecht's own notes say "the point of 'Mother Courage' is that she does not learn from the events of the play." As these things sometimes go, star and director attempted to rework the ending of the drama, but compromise proved unattainable, leading to the surreal string of developments that now has "Mother Courage" opening just as it's preparing to close.
Lewis, as I was saying, is not delivering a performance anyone would characterize as "delusional." She is, rather, frantic and resigned, yet somehow still hopeful she will find safety in an environment where it can’t possibly be found.
Despite its 17th-century setting, "Mother Courage" is considered a response by Brecht to the rise of Nazism. Kulick’s version, for purposes unclear, relocates the play’s action to a generic version of present-day Congo. The change in setting, without sufficient explanation, also was among the reasons Pinkins cited for her departure (she called the decision a "decorative motif").
With the modernization, Courage’s famous canteen wagon, in which she drags along items to sell to revolutionaries, has become the back half of a motorized Jeep.
Lewis originated the role of Asaka in 1990’s “Once on This Island,” and also has had a recurring role as a judge on “Law & Order: SVU.” Producers warned that the actress, with little time to prepare, might be working from a script in some scenes and requesting lines in others. She did both at a performance this weekend, though not to exceptionally distracting effect. By my count, Lewis called for a line five or six times.
What I saw, beyond that issue, was a performer of tremendous confidence, taking on a role with a sharp perspective on her character. Let’s acknowledge the fortitude it takes for an actress to step into a classic and fraught leading role with less than two weeks to prepare, shall we?
Lewis, with her performance, exhibits a hardness few mothers could muster. More than anything, she’s a realist. A powerless realist.
We meet Mother Courage’s three children, Eilif, “Swiss Cheese” and the mute Kattrin (Curtis Cook Jr., Deandre Sevon and Mirirai Sithole), and watch as each is lost over years to wars old and new. Among the more chilling scenes is one when Lewis’s Courage attempts to barter with a solider for the return of Swiss Cheese, but bungles her negotiation, sending the boy to his death in the process.
All three actors playing Courage’s children have a keen and focused take on their roles, though none is more effective than Sithole as the speechless Kattrin, who gives her life trying to warn villagers in a town too far away of an impending invasion. The villagers could not possibly hear her distant grunts, but it doesn't keep the girl from trying.
Kevin Mambo, of “Fela!,” gives a warm portrayal of the cook, who does battle with Courage but holds a sweet spot for her in his hard heart.
Some back story and commentary about war have been hacked away to keep the runtime to barely more than 2 hours. We are abruptly moved forward years at a time with announcements blared over a prison-style loudspeaker system.
Duncan Sheik, who in fact really is everywhere right now (“Spring Awakening,” “American Psycho”), has contributed the bare bones of a score to the bold, discomforting and well-performed proceedings.
“Mother Courage and Her Children,” through Jan. 24 at the Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St. Tickets: $61-$126. Call 212-677-4210.