Mother Courage is one of drama's more intriguing characters. A fiercely persistent woman who survives during the Thirty Years War in the 17th century by peddling food and clothing from a wagon pulled by her children, she is both unsettling and winning. Linda Hunt, who plays her in the Boston Shakespeare Company's production of Bertolt Brecht's ''Mother Courage and Her Children,'' (through Feb. 5) does her proud.
Mother Courage roots for war because it's what supports her; she also fights ferociously against its attempts to grind down her spirit, wit, and strength. Not exactly an affectionate mother - ''I'd rather raise rats,'' she growls - her constant scheming to get ahead causes her to pay least attention when her children most need her. Losing one child after another, she learns nothing from the catastrophes.
Nonetheless Hunt makes her appealing. She has the imperious voice of Julie Harris and the lip-smacking slyness of George Burns. Impish and menacing, this indomitable wren is in full command of the part - and of everyone else. It's a four-hour show, and Hunt carries the brunt of it with great vitality, spelled by periods of intent stillness during which she appears to be listening for her next move.
Hunt is well supported by the other actors. Her mute daughter, Kattrin (played by Lily Knight) is especially effective when, after being raped, she shoots the audience a glittering glance that tells all her tongue can't. John Madden Towey is delightfully Keatonesque as the Chaplain, and Brian Doyle-Murray plays the womanizing Cook. The two sons, Eilif (Henry Woronicz) and Swiss Cheese (Brian McCue), also serve well.
The music hall solos are all punchily sung and the music (provided by piano, synthesizer, and percussion) both rouses and sooths.
Director Timothy S. Mayer has brought us a fresh, clear (if uncut) translation of Bertolt Brecht's script. Except for a few jarring modernisms such as ''If anybody moves, blow him away,'' it works well.
The concept, however, is a little too clean. Judging from the bleached wood floor and wagon and the warm lighting, Mayer seems to be opting for a lyrical rather than chaotic view of the war. It was all lovely and of a piece, but it ended up sanitizing the war. I would have liked to have seen a more decrepit wagon with pots dangling from the sides.
Quibbles aside, it's a fine show.
''Cyrano de Bergerac'' at the Huntington Theatre Company (through Jan. 22) is a vigorous production of this tale of a swashbuckling poet with the big nose and an even bigger love for the prettiest girl in town, Roxanne. He brandishes an eloquent pen as expertly as he does his sword, and when Roxanne falls in love with a handsome soldier who's unschooled in the fine art of lyrical wooing, Cyrano writes the youth's love letters for him.
It's an enormous play, requiring great actors to fill it out. This production is more than competent, but doesn't quite soar.
Technically, it's almost perfect. The sets and costumes wonderfully re-create the 1600s. Jacques Cartier directs sensitively and many small moments are true and lovely. For the most part the timing was superb, particularly the taut scene where Roxanne is describing the man she secretly loves and Cyrano thinks it's him. Cyrano's realization that he's not the man is a tricky teetering between humor and pathos. Pathos wins, and the moment rings.
The problem is that there's little ''fire in the belly,'' to borrow a phrase from the political world. Lots of technique, less soul. Anthony Zerbe, as Cyrano, is filled with panache and wit. However, he sometimes seemed enamored with his own (admittedly melodic) voice - and the big speeches were at the same time rushed and muted.
Mark Capri, as Christian, is a gorgeous hunk, but his country bumpkinness has a flat Midwest flavor rather than a French one.
Joyce Fideor plays a lovely Roxanne, but she, too, missed some spark. Part of it wasn't her fault. Probably because the play already runs three hours, part of a scene was cut in which she brings the starving troops a feast ingeniously packed into a coach. With this not only courageous but caring side of her ex-cised, Roxanne is reduced to little more than a pretty face. To justify a love as great as Cyrano's, she needs all her facets.