LENOX — When you hear that Olympia Dukakis is starring in “Mother Courage and Her Children,’’ your first reaction is that a great performance could be in the offing, one that will be seared into the memory.
But that potential is not realized in Shakespeare & Company’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s antiwar classic. At very few points does Dukakis’s performance — or the production itself, directed by Tony Simotes — touch greatness.
This virtuosic actress, now 82, doesn’t seize the role and make it her own, as she has so often done through sheer force of personality, including her brooding portrayal last summer of the (renamed) island sorcerer Prospera in Shakespeare & Company’s “The Tempest,’’ also directed by Simotes.
Dukakis has played Mother Courage in the past, but her performance this time comes across as effortful, even tentative; there were a few moments on opening night when she briefly struggled with her lines. It could well be that her portrayal will grow more distinctive and compelling as the run goes on and her hold on the role strengthens, but at the moment you can envision lots of other actresses delivering a performance roughly equivalent to hers — not what you usually feel after watching Dukakis onstage or onscreen.
Mother Courage is the nickname given to Anna Fierling, who trundles her canteen wagon across Europe during roughly the middle chunk (1624-36) of the Thirty Years War, selling supplies while trying to keep her three adult children safe. “You want to live off war and keep you and yours out of it, do you?,’’ an army sergeant says to her derisively near the beginning of the play.
Yes, that’s about the size of it. A canny pragmatist and a resourceful entrepreneur, with a sharp eye for the main chance, Mother Courage sees war as “a business proposition’’ — and that, she knows, makes her no different from the kings and commanders who send young citizens to die on their behalf. “To hear the big shots talk, they wage war for almighty God, for all things bright and beautiful, but look into it and you’ll see they’re not stupid: They want to make a good profit, or else the little guys like you and me wouldn’t back ’em up,’’ she says.
In a production that grows stronger in the second act, Simotes largely stays true to Brecht’s unblinking, illusion-free vision of war as an endless, self-perpetuating cycle. That concept has an undeniable resonance today, evoking the protracted military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sardonic songs punctuate and annotate the action in “Mother Courage,’’ and the grim events to come are summarized in supertitles before each scene — staples of Brecht’s “epic theater,’’ which aims at the audience’s heads rather than their hearts, appealing to reason rather than trying to awaken empathy or other emotions.
Yet Dukakis is most effective when she does just that: As the war takes a terrible personal toll on Mother Courage, the actress’s eloquent face registers a blend of weariness, stoicism, and grief that can’t help but move us.
The production’s best moments, though, largely derive from the supporting performances, especially John Douglas Thompson’s freewheeling turn as a shrewd army cook who captures Mother Courage’s fancy and who, like her, will do what it takes to survive. It’s the latest instance of fine work by this superb actor at Shakespeare & Company, where he previously starred in “Satchmo at the Waldorf,’’ “Richard III,’’ and “Othello.’’
Other assets include Paula Langton as Yvette, a rambunctious, cheerfully cynical prostitute who marries her way into respectability; Apollo Dukakis, Olympia’s brother, as a pompous chaplain; and Josh Aaron Mc-Cabe as Mother Courage’s older son Eilif, a living illustration of the way a citizen-turned-soldier can be so consumed by bloodlust that he loses his humanity.
Yet the figure who most fully embodies the cruel cost of war is Kattrin, the mute and watchful daughter of Mother Courage, who becomes a casualty not once but twice. Portrayed by Brooke Parks with exquisite subtlety and sensitivity, it is Kattrin who, in the one truly unforgettable scene of this “Mother Courage,’’ finds a way to fight back.