“It’s the greatest anti-war play of all time,” Molly Smith said about Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Smith, Artistic Director of Arena Stage, is directing a cast led by film and stage star Kathleen Turner in what she described as Brecht’s “greatest play,” to open at Arena this month. About her part in the title role (Mother Courage, not her children), Turner said, “It’s a role all actors of substance definitely think ‘I should tackle at some point.’”
There was another Molly involved the last time Turner was at Arena Stage. In her 2012 solo performance Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, as the irascible and highly quotable progressive columnist from Texas, Turner played to sold-out houses and “really enjoyed working here and with the people” at Arena. She has tremendous respect for Smith, whom she calls an “extraordinary woman.” It wasn’t long before, as Turner put it, they were “passing plays back and forth” in order to find the right project to bring Turner back to Arena.
They soon focused on one play in particular, but, as Smith told me, “the project wasn’t available,” though she wasn’t specific. In a separate interview, Turner told me that it was The Glass Menagerie, currently running on Broadway in a highly praised revival. “Cherry got it first,” Turner said, referring to Cherry Jones, the production’s Amanda Wingfield, “and I’m glad she did. It can’t be done better.” (My husband, who took a day trip to New York to see the production a second time, agrees.)
As the search for the right play resumed, Smith recalled that someone on the staff reminded her, “Molly, you’ve always said that, even though we focus on American voices, if there was a great American artist who wanted to do a role,” Arena’s emphasis on American work could accommodate the occasional foreign play. “I’ve always loved Brecht,” Smith continued. She asked Turner, “Is it time to do Mother Courage?” Turner “immediately said yes” and, Smith said, they were “off and running.”
Turner told me that, as regards “pieces I might play some day, I never see a production” and so she has “avoided” this play and hasn’t seen it staged. In December, however, she did a reading of something else with Olympia Dukakis, who said to her, “I hear you’re going to take on Mother Courage. I’ve done it seven times. Here’s my advice to you: think of this as your first time.”
This is Turner’s first time, not only in the role or in any play by Brecht, but her first time singing on stage. She has five numbers. Smith emphasized the music, saying that one thing that’s “exciting about our production” is that an original score has been composed by James Sugg and performed “in the guise of a gypsy band.” There are “ten to twelve movement pieces throughout.” (David Leong is responsible for movement.) Of the cast of 16, nine play instruments as well. “Rick Foucheux plays the tuba,” Smith said, referring to the popular D.C. actor who plays the key role of The Chaplain (and provoking memories of another tuba-tooting thespian, Patti LuPone, in the John Doyle Sweeney Todd).
It’s a “terrific translation,” Smith continued, referring to British playwright David Hare’s version as “muscular, terse, extremely funny.” Elaborating on the play’s appeal to her, she said, “we live in an ironic time. Brecht’s work is ironic.”
Both Smith and Turner also emphasized how important they think it is for this play to be seen in this town. “It’s rather brilliant to do it here,” Turner told me. Smith concurred, “D.C. is a city where a lot of the decisions are being made.” Referencing recent history, she continued: “It feels like there is a strong resonance” to a play, set during the 30 Years’ War (that was in the 17th century, in case you’re ever asked about it on Jeopardy), written after World War One, and on the brink of World War Two.
“People are here who decide to wage war,” said Turner. “They are not the ones in any way who carry out the war. The people who declare and start the wars are not the ones who suffer. It’s the peasants and the people who carry out the warfare whose lives are destroyed, devastated.” Turner then mentioned the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. Emphasizing that it is her “personal feeling,” she finds it “very disturbing” that the conflict there (now the longest engagement in U.S. history) feels “completely unreal” to many of our citizens. “It’s almost as if the war was invisible.” She contrasts that to earlier conflicts during which there was a more unified effort and involvement, a “consciousness and awareness of an ongoing war.”
Asked what the likelihood is that these deciders will be exposed to Brecht’s perspective at Arena, Smith said that “I don’t feel that theatre is cut off from the political culture of this city” and spoke about how the recent production of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner provoked discussion about how and whether attitudes toward race have changed, how the upcoming world premiere of Lawrence Wright’s Camp David has provoked a “tremendous amount of interest among political people and journalists. I see political people all over the city at the theatre. Official Washington comes to Arena Stage. D.C. is being looked at as a great city to go to the theatre, as having a vital arts scene.” (Brecht’s work can’t help but be better received than Brecht himself was when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s.)
Smith emphasized that Brecht’s distinct perspective on what she described as “the business of war” notwithstanding, the play isn’t a dry polemic: “One of the most important things Brecht said was that theatre is pleasure. When it doesn’t have pleasure at its center, it doesn’t succeed.” Brecht was a master of juxtaposing movement, music, text, “all the accoutrements of the stage, all together, all standing next to each other.” Smith went on to say that “the thing that’s incredible about the way Brecht writes is that he always writes in opposition. After a tender scene, he has the cannons firing.” Turner made a similar point: “He moves from a scene that’s tense and dangerous into an Oom-pah-pah production number.”
And how do they both feel about the woman herself? Smith: “I love her and she frustrates me and she angers me. Sometimes she makes the choices that I would make and sometimes she makes the choices that I wouldn’t make. She’s a survivalist and her fiercest desire is to get through the war with her family intact, with her children. She’s a mother above all.” Turner: “She’s a very practical and realistic character, she has the ability to try and weigh priorities, if she does this now, perhaps it will work. Honestly, I don’t want to label her so much. She’s not easily explained, nor does she need to be. One of the joys of Brecht is that you don’t have to explain this stuff.” Both exhibited their fascination with a multi-faceted character that they feel, in Turner’s phrase, resists over-simplification.
The last time Arena did Brecht was A Man’s a Man about ten years ago, a production admired so much by Kathleen Akerley, Artistic Director at Longacre Lea, that she saw it three times. I saw it once and was disappointed that there were more empty seats after intermission than before. Smith said “I don’t remember that” when I mentioned my experience, but she made a point about challenging programming: “Zelda [Finchandler, Arena’s founding Artistic Director] said something many years ago—‘Repertoire is destiny.” Projects that you put on stage determine the audience you will have in five years, she explained.
Turner’s return is in a different space at Arena’s Mead Center for American Theatre than her last Arena gig. The Molly Ivins play was in the smaller Kogod Cradle space. Mother Courage will be in the Fichandler. Some of us, however, who were around in the 1980s, saw her in that space before it took the name of Arena’s founder, as Titania in an unforgettable A Midsummer’s Night Dream. The set featured a pool on stage. Turner, at one point, took a dive into the water and made her exit underwater. “Wasn’t that something!,” Turner said when reminded of that unusual staging.
Another unusual aspect was her presence at a regional theatre on the heels of her breakout film performance in Body Heat. I said to her that there must have been dozens of manager/agent types begging her to stay focused on movies and L.A. and, if she must do theatre, couldn’t she do something in New York. She laughed and said “very much so,” and agreed that she didn’t follow that sort of career advice, “otherwise, I’d be rich!”
“I never went more than two, two and a half years without being on stage. I love it too much. I never wanted to lose my confidence, to lose my skills,” Turner continued, and emphasized her devotion to theatre: “Film is just something that kind of happened to me. I know that sounds like b.s.,” she added.
“When I was offered the chance to do Cat [on a Hot Tin Roof], I said, ‘Yeah, I’m going.’” This was in 1990, and she found herself warned off it by some of her film colleagues, and here she mentioned Michael Douglas and Jack Nicholson. “‘Don’t do it!,’ they said, ‘You’ll be setting yourself up, there will be a target on your back.’ But I said, ‘This is my dream come true.’ And I had a lovely time on Broadway.” And she’s returned to Broadway periodically, not only in sure-thing revivals (though her greatest success was probably her Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) but also in new work.
Some of the plays (Indiscretions, The Graduate) were based on existing material, but her last show, High, was a new play. She’s also continued to hit the regional circuit, most recently doing The Killing of Sister George at the Long Wharf in New Haven. She will follow Arena with a return to London, where she took her Martha. (That production’s national tour also played the Kennedy Center, many will remember.) She’ll appear there opposite Ian McDiarmid, who won a Tony for the revival of Faith Healer starring Ralph Fiennes and Cherry Jones (her again!), who also played Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars movies, and is fresh off his own Brecht run at the R.S.C. in Life of Galileo.
Turner’s other D.C. show in the 1980s, which I also saw, was the two-hander thriller Toyer, with the late Brad Davis. That was, um, not a success. “It was pretty weird. I remember one critic said that, after seeing it, he felt the need to go home and take a shower.” (It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t that bad! I saw it with my brother Edward and there was a talkback after the performance with the impressive creative team, including Tony Richardson, the wonderful British director who won an Oscar for Tom Jones. The audience was startlingly hostile, even to the courtly and brilliant Set Designer Boris Aronson.)
Our conversation shifted to some of the filmmakers with whom Turner has worked. Her film with Nicholson, Prizzi’s Honor, was directed, after all, by John Huston. It was the legendary director’s penultimate film, and the last on which he had “full involvement,” she said, referring to the open secret that his son Tony guided the bulk of The Dead, his last film. His emphysema was bad, he used an oxygen tank, she told me. “He would leave it to you. ’Call me when you have something to show me,’” she continued. So, “Jack, the cinematographer, and I would line up the scene, and he would come in and say, ‘Less’ or ‘More.’ He would hone in on his preferences.”
“I’ll never forget, there was a scene, we were traveling in a camper, we did one take, he said, ‘No, no, no! You have to out-Sicilian a Sicilian!’ I said, ‘Okay, I understand.’ We did the scene again, and he said, ‘You can do anything, can’t you!’ I thought, well, I can live off that for five years!” But, she remembered, “he did play me sometimes. There was a difficult scene in a small room, very, very tight, the lights, the camera took hours to set up, the frustration was building, and he yelled, ‘No, no, it’s all wrong!’ Then, I overheard him say, ‘I think she’s ready now.’ And I was.”
“Ken Russell is a genius. He just had to shoot himself in the foot all the time,” Turner told me regarding her Crimes of Passion director, one of the most wonderfully idiosyncratic of filmmakers. He wanted to be an international director who also had Hollywood success, but he had to “put something in every film to show he wasn’t selling out.” Co-star Anthony Perkins was “extremely difficult to work with. I don’t know what he was doing. Well, I do know what he was doing…,” she trailed off. (Their scenes together, based on my memory of seeing it when it came out, are really something.)
Russell approached Turner about another project, playing the Red Queen in an unrealized version of Alice in Wonderland. Russell had read Turner’s memoir (Send Yourself Roses: Thoughts on My Life, Love, and Leading Roles, which is available on Amazon.com), and admitted, “You were quite right, I was drinking excessively, but those days are over. And you won’t have to be naked as the Red Queen!” (Crimes of Passion had pushed the envelope as it dealt with its subject of sexual obsession.) Russell died suddenly before Turner could give him an answer; “I don’t know if I would have gone back” to work with him, she reflected.
About John Waters, Turner said, “I love him. He’ll be here for this, he comes to all my productions.” Remembering Serial Mom, Turner told me, “Once I was sure it was not a horror film, that it really was a film about the rip-off of celebrity, when I realized we were on the same page, it was an absolute delight.”
Is Turner the only actor who has been directed by both generations of Coppolas? “I think so!” Remembering that Sofia felt like her “little sister” while she was filming Peggy Sue Gets Married for Sofia’s father Francis Ford Coppala, Turner told me about reading the script for Sofia’s first film, The Virgin Suicides, having a “wonderful meeting” with Sofia, and having Francis tell her, “you have to do it!” However, “the contrasts between the two of them could not be greater. Francis will tell you when to breathe sometimes. Sofia watches and says, ‘Yeah, no, maybe.’”
Meanwhile, Molly Smith follows up her Brechtian adventure with the aforementioned Camp David, to be followed quickly by her Broadway debut. The Velocity of Autumn was intended for Broadway last Spring. Broadway is hopping these days, however, and there are more projects than available theaters, so those plans fell through. Instead, Smith and lead producer Larry Kaye brought the show to Arena, where it ran this Fall. In December, they announced that they had secured the Booth Theatre, a prime spot (one of the two Broadway houses that actually opens onto Shubert Alley) and one of the more intimate, straight-play-friendly spaces. Its current occupant is the revival of The Glass Menagerie starring Zachary Quinto and Cherry Jones (alright, I’m going to stop talking about her, but I can make no promises for my husband), whose limited run and vacating of the Booth closes an interesting circle to this story.
I asked Smith if the play will have been tweaked, since the material was less well received critically than the production and the performances. She made it emphatically clear that she doesn’t read reviews, so there’s been no alteration to the script based on critical response, but that playwright Eric Coble has made maybe ten or twelve “small changes” to the play. She then extolled the play’s virtues.
“It’s a beautiful new play. Eric Coble is absolutely touching on what so many people are going through now. People’s parents, people themselves are aging. What’s fascinating about the play is that what the audience brought in to it is so powerful. The play was created in the space between the audience and the actors.” The story is one that is “being repeated in living rooms all over America. It’s a rare experience” in theatre to work on a play that is so “in the zeitgeist of its time.” Quoting an audience member, Smith told me of a particularly poignant response to the play: “Now I have some of the language I need to talk to my son.”
I’ll close with two comments about the part and the character on which both my interviewees are focusing. One from Turner: “Mother Courage is one of the few roles I’m young for anymore, so that’s kind of fun.” The other from Smith: “It’s ironic that she calls herself Mother Courage. She rode through a battle with fifty loaves of bread…because they were going moldy. Is that courage? Or survival?”
Judge for yourself, Mother Courage and Her Children through March 9, on the Finchandler Stage at Arena Stage. Details and tickets
The Velocity of Autumn opens in previews April 1, 2014 at the Booth Theatre, NYC. Details and tickets