The Third Reich had just thrust Europe into World War II when, in 1939, German playwright Bertolt Brecht, hunkered down in Sweden, completed his acclaimed war drama "Mother Courage and Her Children."
The play, which follows a canteen woman trying to support her three children as the Thirty Years' War raged across Europe in the 1600s, is tragic and strikes a pessimistic tone about war.
In adapting "Mother Courage" for a U.S. audience, Andy Park of the Nebraska Repertory Theatre has selected a more familiar setting, the American Civil War.
Even though the United States isn't currently embroiled in such a bloody battle on its home soil, Park's musical adaptation — which premieres Friday at the Temple Building, 12th and R streets — resonates in its focus on the humanity behind broader conflict, said Moira Mangiameli of Omaha, who holds the title role in the Nebraska Rep production.
"Even when we are so separated as a country ... we still have to remember that we're all human beings and try to find the love," Mangiameli said.
It's a sobering message set in a dismal period of the nation's history, but Mangiameli and fellow cast member Don Richard say Park's adaptation also mixes in some of the good humor that makes life worth living, regardless of the context.
The production breaks the fourth wall in occasional, subtle ways and, in addition to singing, features instrumental performances by several cast members.
"It's been an uphill battle to get those notes back in my embouchure," said Richard, a veteran performer from Chicago who plays piccolo in the Lincoln show.
Park's adaptation is based on a translation by William Grange, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film, and features music by composer Scott Lamps.
The songs are intentionally anachronistic at times, Richard says — he hears a bit of Dixieland jazz, for example — but they don't distract from the solemnity of the subject matter.
In other words, says Mangiameli, "The music is just stunning. It's exquisite."
Directed by Park and featuring a mix of professional and student actors, the production challenges audience members to deepen their understanding of war, regardless of its justifications or lack thereof.
And for Mother Courage, even the tragic events she experiences prompt no clear realization that her own activities during the war were misguided, according to the woman portraying her.
Mangiameli earned her master's degree from UNL and has performed locally with Angels Theatre Company and the Lincoln Community Playhouse. This is her first production with Nebraska Rep, in a role marked as much by pragmatism as it is emotion.
"Mother Courage" starts the play on the Union side, then helps the Confederate rebels when they take over midway through. "She switches sides because that's what makes sense," Mangiameli said.
"I believe that what she does is justified because I have to, because I'm playing her," Mangiameli said. And, in the end, "I don't know that she learns that it's wrong."