Star rating: ***
Mrs. Warren might have been the poster girl for modern womanhood—an entrepreneur who grew a successful business, gave her partners a handsome return on their investment, and offered opportunities to poor young women whose options were few. But, alas, her career as managing director of a chain of “hotels with benefits” was far less acceptable than those of her fellow capitalists who made money in legitimate ways, such as poisoning workers in lead factories.
Nobody understands this societal distinction better than Mrs. Warren herself. She has shielded her only daughter, Vivie, from any knowledge of her work. While Mrs. Warren directed her empire on the continent, Vivie grew up in England, excelling at university, where she perfected her math skills and her backhand, blissfully unaware of the brothels that bankrolled her upper-class upbringing. But when she graduates from university, mother and daughter meet, and the truth is revealed. Can Vivie, who prides herself on her independence as a modern woman, accept her mother for what she is?
George Bernard Shaw delighted in shocking his audiences. Shaw knew when he wrote Mrs. Warren’s Profession in 1893 that audiences weren’t ready for a prime-time production about a madam. The play was banned in London; it closed after opening night in New Haven in 1905. When Mrs. Warren opened in New York a few days later, the cast was arrested for “offending public decency.” Shaw’s play no longer has shock value, but he offers a cast of delightful characters with hypocrisies aplenty.
First there’s Mrs. Warren. Elizabeth Ashley—whose whiskey-and-cigarettes voice alone is a testament to the virtues of bawdy living—is delicious as the matriarchal madam. She manages to be both indomitable and vulnerable—no easy feat. When Ashley’s on stage, she rules. Amanda Quaid, as Vivie, is remarkably able to go toe to toe with Ashley. We expect this slip of a girl to disappear into the woodwork whenever Ashley’s onstage, but Quaid holds her own and then some.
The men pale in comparison—they’re fops, phonies, or hapless romantics. Shaw loves his archetypes. We have Reverend Garner (David Sabin), a social-climbing preacher who buys his sermons and hopes no one will discover his youthful fling with Mrs. Warren. Gardner’s son Frank (Tony Roach) is hoping to marry Vivie for her mother’s money but doesn’t want anything to do with the source. Sir George Crofts (Kenneth Cavett) is happy to be Mrs. Warren’s silent partner as long as the profits remain high and his profile remains low. The one likable male is Mr. Praed (Ted van Griethuysen), who prattles on about art and beauty but doesn’t accomplish much of anything. With men like these, it’s no wonder the Warren women resolve to make their own fortunes and live their own lives.
Director Keith Baxter has mounted a splendid production. The sets are beautiful, the lighting and sound direction perfect. Baxter employs some wonderful stage business to give the actors a chance to strut their stuff. Watching a hung-over Reverend Gardner try to manage a delicate china teacup is priceless, and his spineless son’s ability to loll about is also amazing to watch.
If only Shaw could leave us to these images and not preach on about the hypocrisy of it all. In the end, it’s the gestures the actors make and not the words they say that move us. This is a wonderful production of an overbearing play. Any fault onstage lies not with Mrs. Warren’s practice of her profession but with Mr. Shaw’s practice of his.
At the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall through July 11. Click here for tickets ($20 to $70).