Great, enduring drama speaks to audiences through the years, decades, centuries. Sometimes, such plays become a template for contemporary playwrights, inspiring them to bring their own voices and sensibilities to a fresh take on a classic.
Deborah Zoe Laufer did just that with her world premiere piece “The Three Sisters of Weehawken,” inspired by Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” the Carbonell Award-nominated play that launched the first fully produced season at Boca Raton’s Theatre Lab in October.
Now, a developmental production of Allison Gregory’s “Motherland,” inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s chilling 1939 play “Mother Courage and Her Children,” transforms the great German dramatist’s antiwar piece into a play set in what the program describes as “an ignored lot in a hopeless corner of a large American city.” The time? “Like it could have happened today.”
Actually, both the tone and time frame are elastic in Gregory’s play, which has been staged by Theatre Lab’s associate artistic director, Matt Stabile.
The War on Poverty, launched a half-century ago by President Lyndon B. Johnson, is referenced, but the characters and situations in “Motherland” are contemporary.
A sign indicates that federal SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) payments are accepted at the makeshift urban “store” run out of the back of a trailer by the wily woman known only as Mother (Karen Stephens). A policeman called Sergeant (Michael H. Small) orders Mother’s eldest, police trainee Destin I (Troy Davidson), to destroy a homeless family’s encampment, and the formerly defiant young man savagely complies. Mother and her other children, the enthusiastic but slow Destin II (Roderick Randle) and deaf-mute daughter U-Neek (Shein Mompremier), pay no more attention to the police helicopters buzzing overhead than they would to a mosquito.
“Motherland” ricochets (and more than once) from observant humor to menace, intimidation, charged sensuality, violence and tragedy. Gregory and Stabile go for their own version of Brecht’s alienation effect — in essence, emphasizing artifice to keep audiences from becoming lost in the world of the play — by sometimes having characters speak stage directions and by labeling many of the items on Kent Barrett’s artfully trash-strewn set.
At the center of “Motherland” is Stephens’ Mother, a woman with psychic insights and an exploitative nature when it comes to providing for her family. She calls herself an “entrepreneur” (pronouncing the word “entrée-pinoor”). The world might call her a profiteer in a different kind of war.
Carbonell winner Stephens is a smart, powerful performer, a woman both radiant and edgy. Gregory has given her a torrent of words, and on opening night, the dialogue wasn’t fully etched into her mind, and she made more than a few mistakes. Yet it’s clear that the diminutive Stephens is on her way to fully inhabiting a formidable character.
As her endangered offspring, Davidson is a roiling spirit, Randle a sensitive soul and Mompremier a young woman who is eloquently expressive in her silence. Jovon Jacobs is charismatic as Dontavius, a sketchy character and would-be artist who finds U-Neek alluring, which infuriates Mother.
Small’s Sergeant is a specialist in hassling one and all, and he also plays a vendor who becomes another one of Mother’s exploitative targets. After an opening bit as a drug-driven thief, Jordon Armstrong plays the cockily racist Officer Flank, as well as a slick developer named Opportunity Smith (yeah, there’s an “opportunity knocks” joke there), a man proposing to “help” the neighborhood by razing and gentrifying it.
Kudos to Barrett and his fellow designers David Nail (lighting), Matt Corey (sound) and Dawn C. Shamburger (costumes) for work that’s vital to the storytelling, a creative vision that is unsettling and revealing.
As Gregory is still developing the script for “Motherland,” the play will likely evolve, perhaps acquiring an even sharper contemporary resonance. Brecht dipped back in time three centuries to the Thirty Years’ War for his dramatic response to the rise of Fascism and Nazism, and Gregory has turned to Brecht for her new take on societal turmoil and its cost. As “Motherland” emphasizes yet again, war has always been and will forever be hell.
“Motherland” is a Theatre Lab production running through Feb. 12 in Parliament Hall on the Florida Atlantic University Campus, 777 Glades Road, in Boca Raton. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday (additional matinee Feb. 11). Tickets cost $35. To order, call 561-297-6124 or go to FAUEvents.com.