A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes 80: Anna Christie and Mother Courage

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Derek Wilson and Rebecca Brooksher in the Berkshire Theatre Group's production of "Anna Christie." Photo by Abby LePage.
Derek Wilson and Rebecca Brooksher in the Berkshire Theatre Group’s production of “Anna Christie.” Photo by Abby LePage.


Eugene O’Neill’s lyricism catches us out slowly. Rarely sweet, almost tidy, it has stretches I would call “bare bones.” But even these passages enable the silences. Tennessee Williams gives us poems which could be extracted. In O’Neill’s Anna Christie, this is not the method. Only after a while does the singing become audible. It makes you stretch your hearing. This takes actors with great ears, with restraint, with a long view of each individual scene. The whole is the sum of its parts; the parts themselves almost utilitarian. That said, it has a flow which is in no way stiff or self-conscious. There were three superb actors in Berkshire Theatre Group’s production of this play, who heard the music. You might characterize them this way: the father, played by Jonathan Hogan, the overseer; the daughter played by Rebecca Brooksher — a kind of active listener; and Derek Wilson, playing the young man, the extravagant performer. Mr. Wilson’s Matt Burke was an amazing creation. Part brute, part virtuoso, with the best Irish accent I have heard in the theatre, he seduced and repulsed in almost equal measure. Ms. Brooksher’s listener held in mental chains a silence too large to be borne, wanting to be clean. Mr. Hogan’s father persona was a model of penetrating acting. In a Swedish accent also believable, he gave a halting kind of speech great eloquence. He also enabled every silence. He was compelled by the poet to use gentle profanity — “by golly”, the most common of these. Some of these were explosions; some of them expressed doubt, fear; some were sweet, like a kind of laughter. This was a way O’Neill steadily and movingly softened his character, making us, forcing us to find sympathy for a man who had abandoned his daughter. Mr. Hogan heard this so well. It was because of his hearing that he moved us. Ms. Brooksher, as the put-upon child, was strong in a role that could have been pale and sullen. She seemed to constantly conjure up her past as an involuntary imperative that made her speak. This wonderful actress was able to do past and present at the same time, and we loved her.

The ending of the play does not convince me. Things happen rapidly, comically, in one instance (both father and boyfriend signing up for the same long-distance sea journey). It seems contrived. Much time and much exquisite language of the simplest sort has been expended by the playwright singing the situations into our hearts. An ending where the daughter finally is allowed by the men in her life to be clean seems inadequate, even reprehensible.

Keep on Truckin’

Olympia Dukakis and Brooke Parks in Shakespeare & Company's production of Mother Courage. Photo by Enrico Spada.
Olympia Dukakis and Brooke Parks in Shakespeare & Company’s production of Mother Courage. Photo by Enrico Spada.

Mother Courage and Falstaff have a lot in common. The military is their chief stool pigeon. Falstaff sends some of his soldiers to their death on the front lines to collect the bounty. Neither has any illusions about the concept of honor. Next on the list to be derided is religion. In the plot of Mother Courage and Her Children war and religion combine into a frenzy of futility. These two great characters also have their differences. Falstaff deflates when his young companion, Prince Hal, rejects him. Mother Courage keeps going. So does the preaching in Brecht’s play. One feels like the language, but not just that, even the purpose for a scene being there, is some kind of negative didacticism. It gets heavy. It seems heavy like the wagon that Mother Courage and her children are pulling. So we must ask the inevitable question: is this titanic figure right in her way of living? She loses all of her children, has less than she began with — basically nothing, and yet she goes on. To where? With whom? The play almost makes me want to cry out ” I get it! What’s the point? Is life really this bad?” But then along comes a great actress, in this case, Olympia Dukakis, and one is cajoled, scolded, preached, even forced to hear the message. Because it is such a preacherly drama, I liked the silent parts best. I cite only two of several: first and so wonderful, the silent role of Kattrin, bravely and sharply played by Brooke Parks. Every scene this young actress played was riveting, but the one in which she tried to warn another character of impending doom, making only something like animal noises, was very nearly the most intense moment in the play. The animal noises she made sounded like words; one could almost hear the words, but they were not words, almost quiet, but not quiet. Eloquent. Then there was one of the last moments in the play. After Ms. Dukakis had powerfully and tirelessly talked her drab band through peril after peril, the silent daughter dies. Ms. Dukakis took minutes, it seemed, to kneel down beside her, look at her, touch her, as one feels compelled to do in the presence of a dead loved one, and then rise up again taking oodles of time to get back on her feet. This grand gesture, which probably took three or four minutes of stage time, was a miracle of imagination and control, in dreadful harmony. Since there are so many words in the play, this moment spoke louder than words, and the reason was Olympia Dukakis. There was an excellent strong, clear performance of the Chaplain by Apollo Dukakis, and John Douglas Thompson’s Cook trod a moving line between good humor and pathos. For my taste, the play goes on too long, but in this performance, like Mother Courage herself, these excellent artists in particular hung on and made me see the heroine’s constant reinventing of herself as a parallel, a symbol, a presage, of acting itself.

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