George Bernard Shaw was an iconoclast and troublemaker. In his plays, moral and intellectual combat tend to replace action, but the dialogue is so brilliant that the results are engaging rather than static. Plot isn't central, nor is strict continuity. In Mrs. Warren¹s Profession, a gun makes an appearance but is never fired. The vexed issue of a young couple's consanguinity is raised with great drama, then dropped with a sigh, as if Shaw had become bored with it. Yet there are scenes between Mrs. Warren and her daughter as thrilling as any confrontation in dramatic literature, and the Germinal Stage production, while it has its problems, proves the old man's voice has lost none of its vigor over the last hundred years.
Shaw, a socialist and ahead-of-his-time feminist, once famously remarked that Englishmen believe that a woman's place is in the home for the same reason British schoolboys think parrots belong in cages: because they have never seen one anywhere else. Mrs. Warren's Profession is dominated by two magnificent female characters -- Mrs. Warren and her daughter, Vivie. Each in her own way is a prototype of the Shavian woman: strong-minded, clear-thinking, fiercely independent. As a young girl, Mrs. Warren clawed her way out of poverty through prostitution; at the time of the play, she runs a string of European brothels -- in which, she hastens to point out, young women are treated far better than those in the regular workforce. Vivie, who at the play's beginning knows nothing of her mother's profession, has just graduated with high honors from Cambridge. She is as ambitious as her mother, indifferent to the arts and unafflicted by any of the softer emotions. She intends to earn an honest living in London, in the service of capital.
Shaw has a field day with all of this. In the voice of Mrs. Warren, he excoriates a society that condemns women for taking the only road to comfort and independence available to them, suggests further that marriage itself is nothing but legalized prostitution, and expands the word's definition to encompass all capitalist activity. Around Vivie and Mrs. Warren circle a clutch of rather one-dimensional men, characters representing some of Shaw's favorite targets: a reverend who once slept with Mrs. Warren; the helpless, well-meaning architect, Praed; Mrs. Warren's corrupt but socially respectable partner, Sir George Crofts; and Frank Gardner, a shallow ne'er-do-well, amusing in a Bertie Woosterish way (if Wooster were capable of the sustained logical thought self-interest requires), with whom Vivie begins a romantic relationship.
The play has its weaknesses. Some of the dialogue is inconsistent, and the ending fails to satisfy, but it's bracingly funny and -- even though prostitution may no longer shock us -- full of still-relevant insight. And Germinal's production, although it has many strong moments, is uneven. The only performance that's entirely successful is that of Ed Baierlein (who also directed) as Sir George Crofts. He brings depth, irony and complexity to a character that could easily be played as one-dimensional.
In fact, the play's intense Englishness -- and it's hard to get more English than Shaw -- presents a huge hurdle for the rest of the cast. Most of the players assume accents so overpowering that the accent seems to be animating the actor, instead of the other way around, skewing rhythm and pulling sentences off-kilter. In particular, Vanessa Ayan Lunnon has a problem, producing some words so oddly shaped -- "meh" for "me," for example -- that decoding them takes full concentration. This is a shame, because Lunnon has a striking presence and is physically perfect for the part of Vivie: beautiful in a sturdy, clear-eyed way, and able fully to communicate the character's awesome self-possession.
McPherson Horle, as Mrs. Warren, is a more convincing Englishwoman, and though she doesn't quite have the stature for the role, she rises fully to the occasion in Mrs. Warren's first shattering confrontation with Vivie. The second mother-daughter argument is marred by the fact that the women keep shrieking at each other. If they could summon the same fury but deliberately damp down its delivery, the scene would be electrifying. Frank Gardner is an odd, affected duck, but Jim Miller gives such a mannered performance in the role that it's impossible to believe the sensible Vivie could ever be attracted to him.
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