CHELSEA — Should a child who's been separated from his natural mother go back to that mother, or should he stay with the woman who's raised and loved him? That's the dilemma of Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," and it resolves meltingly in the free outdoor production directed by Danielle Fauteux Jacques that Apollinaire Theatre Company is presenting in Chelsea's waterfront Mary O'Malley Park.
Brecht doesn't leave much doubt as to where your sympathies should lie in this parable set in a timeless region of the Caucasus. Forced to flee her palace when the nobles rebel, the Governor's Wife is so preoccupied with choosing which sumptuous dresses to pack that she leaves her infant son behind. Kitchen maid Grusha rescues Michael and takes him with her through war torn Grusinia, buying overpriced milk for him, carrying him across a rickety footbridge swaying over an abyss, bringing him to her cowardly brother's house in the northern mountains, even marrying a man she doesn't love so he'll have a father. When the Governor's Wife returns and demands that Grusha surrender the boy, it's no surprise that Azdak, a judge who takes bribes from the rich but renders verdicts in favor of the poor, awards Michael to Grusha and even divorces Grusha from her husband so she can marry the man she does love, the soldier Simon.
The action of "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" journeys from the town of Nukha to the mountains and then back, so it's appropriate that Apollinaire's production should also travel, moving (and taking the audience with it) from a small stage in front of the park's restroom pavilion to the bank of the Mystic River and then to the granite pier near the Tobin Bridge. The outdoor setting is also appropriate, since for much of the play Grusha and Michael have no roof over their heads.
One stumbling block to presenting "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" is Brecht's framing prologue, in which, at the end of World War II, two collective farms debate ownership of the land that's been won back from the invading Nazis, and this parable is presented. Apollinaire, like many other modern productions, makes the reasonable decision to omit this section; Jacques has also made a small cut in Act 4, no real loss.
Paola M. Ferrer, as the Singer, declaims the introduction in front of a handsome painted backdrop depicting Nukha with its trees and river and distant mountains under a blue sky. The actors who aren't onstage gather on both sides of it, in full view of the audience, changing outfits and sometimes functioning as a chorus. The entire production, with Susan Paino's homespun-looking costumes and original music by David Reiffel, has the feel of a makeshift show put on by locals — which is just what Brecht describes.
The acting, however, is broad, comic, and one-dimensional; typical is Tony Dangerfield's dim bulb of a Governor wearing what looks like a lampshade hat. I wonder whether a more reserved, low-key approach wouldn't better suit Alistair Beaton's very British translation. Ferrer's Singer is a little strident and not well distinguished from her preposterously entitled Governor's Wife. Dev Luthra is an earnest, cagy Azdak, though the character's lighthearted cynicism could be more in evidence.
As for the central couple who meet and court cute, Courtland Jones's Grusha and Mauro Canepa's Simon make a callow, emotional, nervous-sounding pair, but they do ground the play in love. Jones is especially effective in her movement and her facial expressions; she gives Brecht's play the heart it needs. There's a wonderful moment at the beginning of Act 2 when, carrying Michael, Grusha comes traipsing through the grass toward the audience. It conveys a sense of her ordeal in a way no indoor production ever could.