Mrs. Warren's Profession

A woman’s place takes center stage in Shaw’s provocative work.

Although it's filled with George Bernard Shaw's usual spot-on analysis, as well as a fair share of his parody and wit, Mrs. Warren¹s Profession is an early and far-from-perfect piece of theater. It's talky -- that goes without saying -- and peopled by characters who seem intended more to illustrate the author's political points than to live and breathe on a stage. Mrs. Warren is not only a prostitute, but a cheerfully unrepentant one. Her work has enabled her to buy a first-rate education for her daughter, Vivie, and Vivie is now a hearty, self-possessed and rather priggish young woman, properly English to the core. The play scandalized Victorian England, of course, and critics were particularly infuriated by Shaw's assertion that prostitution was the only rational profession for a poor young woman because the alternatives were hunger, bone-cracking work and early death; they were also incensed by Mrs. Warren's comment that whoring wasn't really so very different from marriage. And Shaw had the repellent Sir George Crofts push the point further by showing that there's not an ounce of moral difference between prostitution and capitalism, and that it's corruption that keeps those capitalist wheels merrily spinning.

As the play opens, Vivie and her mother have spent most of their lives apart and are about to be reunited. Two steely Shavian women, they have a couple of major clashes before the evening is over. Mrs. Warren wins handily in the first round. Once she's explained the circumstances that fueled her choice, Vivie is filled with admiration for her mother's rationality and financial acumen, and gratitude for her own comfortable upbringing. But then Vivie learns that Mrs. Warren has never abandoned her calling and, with her partner, Crofts, is profiting from the bodies of young women sold in whorehouses across Europe. She turns decisively against the older woman; the second round is hers.

It's not entirely clear where Shaw's sympathies lie. He makes a compelling case for Mrs. Warren when she states that her prostitutes are treated far better than other young girls in the workforce; I'd always seen that argument as decisive. But watching this production, I realize you can make just as strong a case that Vivie represents the play's moral center and is a stand-in for the mocking author himself, infuriatingly detached, cold and judgmental.

Jeanne Paulsen (left) and Nisi Sturgis in Mrs. WarrenÂąs Profession.
Jeanne Paulsen (left) and Nisi Sturgis in Mrs. WarrenÂąs Profession.

Almost all of the males who cluster around these two females are pure caricatures. Vivie's suitor is Frank, the charming and aimless son of a local rector, the Reverend Samuel Gardner. As it turns out, Gardner has sown his own share of wild oats, embodying what Shaw sees as the hypocrisy and feeble-mindedness of the church. Then there's Praed, the architect, a decent but sentimental man who represents the arts (which Vivie loathes), and Crofts, whose straightforward villainy can be oddly appealing.

I like Shaw. I like plays in which language and idea are paramount. So I'm not entirely sure why this production left me cold. There's the accent problem, of course; it's hard to concentrate on what's being said on stage when the speech rhythms are this uncertain. At intermission, I felt validated when I heard two young Englishwomen parsing the inaccuracies for an American friend almost sentence by sentence: "We just don't say the word like that," explained one. The problem isn't just that the accents aren't convincing; it's that, with Shaw, speech patterns are an essential part of character. Frank's archaisms -- "What a lark!" "Ever such chums" -- have to be spoken with real authority if they're to sound like anything a real human being would say, and this is beyond the ability of James Knight, whose Frank is handsome but unconvincing. When Mrs. Warren is pushed too far by Vivie, it's her long-ago Cockney self, the self she's spent years repressing, that gives her the power to blaze back in fury at her class-conscious daughter, and this has to be reflected in her consonants and vowels.

The casting is uneven overall. Randy Moore's Gardner is a broader portrait than the other characterizations, but it's very funny. Richard Sheridan Willis gives us a pleasant Praed. John Hutton plays Crofts with such brilliant and juicy expressiveness that the interest level rises several notches whenever he's on the stage. Jeanne Paulsen is strong and emotionally convincing as Mrs. Warren, but Nisi Sturgis's Vivie has little perceptible inner life, and you never feel any real current between the two actresses. At the end of their final scene, Paulsen explodes in pain and rage, but Sturgis seems so unmoved that you wonder, as Paulsen storms off the stage, if she's exiting another play altogether.

 
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