Mrs. Warren’s Profession
By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Gus Kaikkonen
Produced by Rep Stage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Mrs. Warren’s Profession pulls no punches dealing with gender equity, social injustice, personal freedom and responsibility, prostitution, brothels and even hints of incest. Is there any wonder that it was banned in England (1900), and its New York City premiere resulted in full scale arrests of cast and crew? Shaw was years ahead of his time, he didn’t mind a rousing mud-slinging reaction, and seemed to thrive on the controversy; consequently, his plays resonate to this century.
Shaw sets up the issues in an adorable country estate far removed from the “Best Little Whorehouse” but still deals with the oldest profession and the desperate circumstances of human trafficking that fuel it. Each character reflects the well bred, accepted traits of civilized society in manner, impeccable style and dress. The gentlemen tip their hats, the ladies dress for walks in the countryside, yet all the tea and crumpets in the world can’t hide the swirling questions of paternal identity, ill-gotten gains, domestic abuse and hints of a romantic dalliance between siblings decades before Angelina Jolie’s intriguing spells with her brother. With enough dish to fill a ton of reality shows, Mrs. Warren’s Profession serves a heaping helping while questioning how much can one distance oneself from immoral behavior while reaping the lucrative financial benefits of the transactions?
The Rep Stage production handles the issues gracefully with class and humor. The beautifully set stage, designed by Daniel Ettinger, is as picture-perfect as the wisteria hanging lusciously along the sides. The revolving stage design required some extra creativity when for several moments at the beginning of one scene the actors use both sides of the set simultaneously.
The actors function like a well oiled ensemble, each attentive to the needs of the other, genuflecting when appropriate, dishing up more than enough rounds of “please and thank you’s,” fulfilling the basic requirements of respectable Edwardian society. Ever so slowly, however, the guard comes down, the dainty gloves come off, the blossoms shrivel up, and the basic, coarse elements of human behavior start to peek through the veneer of civility. It’s amazingly choreographed as much as directed by Gus Kaikkonen, since the physical movements and emotional stances alter to match the drama unfolding on stage.
Michael Stebbins plays a family friend of Mrs. Warren who comes to visit, and whether he’s fumbling and bumbling with a folding chair, or casting about anxiously trying to keep the peace lauding about the virtues of art and love, Stebbins has a friendly and accessible style, great timing and hilarious expressions.
As the still frocked minister who just discovered his own role in fathering this now grown woman, Bill Largess carries on as a fluttering, stuttering mess, and Matt Jared as his son and potential love interest for Vivie has a playful, boyish charm. Nigel Reed is at his high-falutin’ best, masking a Simon Legree sinister soul packaged in the supreme elegance and deportment of an English gentleman. That man can wear some suits – Kathleen Geldard outdid herself designing the scrumptious outfits – but it takes a man of gorgeous movement and physique to do it justice, and Reed could sprawl on a divan and skulk about any day. Plus, he’s got the most luscious elocution. His tell all scene when he spills the beans about the shared lineage of the two potential lovers is high art, and that final exit — exquisite.
The two leads, mother and daughter Warren are also wonderfully cast to depict these rather complex characters. Natasha Staley as the daughter Vivie stands rigidly erect, has no bend for softness or compromise, even her handshake will stop circulation. Staley’s cut to the chase interpretation of the character is devoid of dallying or sentiment. Lisa Bostnar successfully straddles Mrs. Warren between being smug and certain defending her indefensible positions, pugnacious in one moment, while pitiful the next. Bostnar maintains the appeal throughout the play, and that’s no mean feat, not unlike another strong female character you love to hate, Hedda Gobbler by Ibsen, a socially conscious playwright often identified with Shaw and Checkov.
Independence, personal strength, and financial fortitude are the necessary underpinnings for the Warren women who are more alike in this regard than even they realized. No questions of nature vs nurture here since their lives intersected so rarely with the mother leaving Vivie to fend for herself with governesses and private schools -the best that money could buy, no doubt, just not mother’s TLC.
The ending scene locks the two in a final even desperate reckoning. What’s left of the subtle thrusts and jabs now become full, no-holds-barred punches, a fight to the death, at least metaphorically of their already strained relationship. Both actresses rise to the occasion, swinging like tired boxers, neither willing to give up. It is here where Bostnar displays a full range of fleeting, sometimes conflicting emotions while making her case. Her longing for her daughter is palpable and authentic. She seems drawn to her almost beyond her control and is hurt beyond belief when she is rebuffed, bristles in self-protection and self-defense, offers more reasons and excuses for her behavior, tries again, but Vivie stiffens up even more. A slight little thing, Staley is determined not to be moved and stays as hard as flint.
Mrs. Warren knows that this is a fight to the finish. That’s just her fighting nature. She’s a tough, manipulating survivor well aware of her own strengths, limits, and cut-off points. Sure, she can flash a saloon-girl smile and share a stiff drink and a hearty laugh with the best of them, but she also knows when to hold ‘em and fold ‘em. And at the showdown, we know that the ultimatum is no idle melodramatic threat, that once she walks out the door, she is all but dead to her daughter. It’s the real deal. To watch female characters finally get a chance to wrestle with such big stakes issues is a thrill. Leave it to Shaw and Rep Stage to make it happen.
Shaw’s genius is his ability to cloak philosophical issues in well crafted, sturdy dramatic scenes, albeit prone more towards rhetorical argument sometimes than wit and flair. Still, with its lacerating observations about privilege, women’s roles and ethical choices, this production hits smack to the heart of today’s high-octane society. Lucky for us that Rep Stage has the talent, depth and humorous touches to show why this masterpiece has not only survived but speaks with urgency now.
Running Time: 2:30 with intermission
When: Thru February 24th, Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday 8pm, Saturday-Sunday matinees 2:30 pm.
Where: Rep Stage, on the campus of Howard Community College, 1091 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD 21044
Info: call 410 -772-4900 or consult the website.