An opportunity to see the greatest of George Bernard Shaw's early plays, Mrs. Warren's Profession, doesn't come along every day. And Boulder Repertory Company's solid-gold production of the controversial drama offers just exactly the right occasion. The cast is excellent, the direction superb and the social issues still troubling. But something else lies just below the surface of this tough tale--Shaw's grasp of the strife between generations, especially between mothers and daughters--and director Frank Georgianna and company get it right.
The story concerns the relationship between a middle-aged beauty, Mrs. Warren, and her twenty-year-old daughter. Miss Vivie Warren has just completed a distinguished Cambridge education in mathematics, and she's got a handshake so strong that it disconcerts the men who try it. This is a woman of character, we are repeatedly reminded--a young woman who knows her own mind and has the will to use it.
As the play opens, Vivie's mysterious mother shows up for a visit with her vulgar business partner, Sir George Crofts, and we learn that Vivie has been raised by paid employees of Mrs. Warren. Though not bitter, Vivie hasn't much affection to offer anyone--particularly her mother. A handsome ne'er-do-well preacher's son who lives nearby courts her, and she amiably encourages him. A friend of her mother's, an art lover named Mr. Praed, tries to involve Vivie in the arts, but all she wants is to work all day and then relax with a glass of whiskey and a cigar at night.
The wealthy Mother Warren, though, has other plans for her brainy daughter. She wants Vivie to live a glamorous life, marry well, spend plenty of the money she's acquired, and then take care of Mama in her old age.
One of the great things Shaw does with this play is give each woman a chance to understand the other. And Vivie does understand; she is a principled, intelligent woman, but she is not a hypocrite. She pities her mother--until she finds out that Mrs. Warren has never given up her executive position, which as it turns out is as a madam in several of the classiest little whorehouses in Europe.
Like so many mothers, Mrs. Warren presumes the rights of a mother over an obedient child. But aside from paying for the education that has made Vivie so independent, she has done nothing at all to deserve those rights. Vivie is her own person, not her mother's possession, and though she does appreciate her mother's achievement as a businesswoman, she knows her wealth is built on the exploitation of unfortunate women.
But the play isn't really about prostitution at all; it's about the excesses of capitalism and the deliberate repression of the poor that leads poor girls into the profession. Shaw was a socialist of sorts, and he engaged the hard realities of unenlightened capitalism whenever he got the chance, both as a playwright and as a critic. He was also a defender of women's rights, and taking on prostitution gave him the chance to fly in the face of contemporary morality, which in the Europe of his day, protected men and exposed women to degradation. In fact, this play introduces us to the themes of his greatest plays, from Pygmalion to Major Barbara.
If Shaw errs in this play, it is in his annoying blindness about the actual demeaning nature of prostitution. But then, he couldn't do everything. He lets Vivie reject it, and that's a lot.
Chet Martin and Tom Pavey are nicely balanced as Reverend Gardner and son, building a smart antagonism that echoes that between Mrs. Warren and daughter. Alan Dumas makes the icky Sir George about as creepy a high-class sleazebag as anyone could wish. Frank Georgianna gives another supremely natural performance as good Mr. Praed, lending an authentic nineteenth-century grace to the whole production.
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The women, meanwhile, are terrific. Maurie Taylor gives a lively, intelligent reading of Vivie's character, projecting fierce substance and integrity. She needs to just to occupy the same space with the beautiful, powerful Susan d'Autremont as Mrs. Warren. This is d'Autremont's finest hour--at just the right moments, her Mrs. Warren is elegant, corrupt, needy and chillingly honest. We completely feel her helplessness when Vivie rejects the wealth she has so painfully acquired.
Shaw has said it all: Economics can enslave, but money isn't everything. His morality may appear to be situational in this play, but, as with most of his plays, he's trying to underscore a larger morality by showing an outrageous disregard for convention. Later, in Major Barbara, that morality crystallized into a brilliant, if crackpot, vision of social and economic justice--a vision ably foreshadowed by Mrs. Warren's Profession.--Mason
Mrs. Warren's Profession, through August 25 at the Boulder Public Library, 1000 Canyon Boulevard, Boulder, 449-7258.