Elizabeth Ashley makes a persuasive case for pimping in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession directed with genteel sparkle by Keith Baxter.
While, thankfully, Miss Ashley does not glamorize prostitution, she imbues the character of successful madam Mrs. Warren with earthy swagger and wisdom about the ways of the world that is both canny and compassionate. You may not applaud her career choice, but you would definitely delight in her company over a glass of whiskey and a story or two.
Similarly, George Bernard Shaw’s comedy of ideas does not condemn the old slap and tickle, but instead posits that poverty is the root of all evil. The scandal of Mrs. Warren’s unapologetic defense for working herself up from drudge to manager of a flourishing chain of European bordellos resulted in getting Mr. Shaw’s play banned for almost 30 years. Mrs. Warren is the alluring mouthpiece for Mr. Shaw’s observation that poor, working-class women of the Victorian era were faced with narrow choices—work in dangerous factories, abusive marriages, or, in the case of Mrs. Warren, a life upon the wicked stage or between the sheets. He also takes to task the hypocrisy of the upper classes—especially the men who keep up appearances of moral propriety all the while exploiting the working girls, and in many instances, financially benefiting from their investments in the world’s oldest profession.
After a stint in the music hall—deftly portrayed in a series of vintage musical numbers featuring a younger version of Mrs. Warren (the entrancing Caitlin Diana Doyle) performing with a bevy of Cockney “bruisers”—Mrs. Warren decided to turn her business acumen to the sexual arena. Many years later, she has neither turned respectable nor given up the trade. She likes to work and she’s good at what she does—simple as that.
Her work ethic and keen business mind is practically the only thing she shares with her daughter Vivie (Amanda Quaid), a stiff-spined Gibson Girl who recently graduated from Cambridge on her mother’s dime. Returning to England in the hopes of cozily reuniting with her daughter, Mrs. Warren instead faces a disdainful, priggish Vivie who is shocked to learn the source of her mother’s fortune and largesse.
The scene of their showdown is a bucolic English cottage—rendered in flower-flocked perfection by Simon Higlett—that looks like something out of a Merchant Ivory movie. Vivie is on holiday—again, paid for by her mother—and is being wooed by a golden-haired member of the local gentry, Frank (Tony Roach), who wants her for her money perhaps more than for her ideals. The country party is rounded out by Frank’s father (David Sabin), a former reprobate turned man of the cloth, and Mrs. Warren’s old friend Mr. Praed (Ted van Griethuysen, the embodiment of springlike bonhomie), an eternally boyish artiste who thrives on art and romance.
After a lovely June night of heartfelt revelations, Vivie views her mother as something of a courageous hero, but those sentimental feelings quickly fade when Mrs. Warren’s long-time investor, the high-born weasel Sir George Crofts (Andrew Boyer), reveals that mother is still in the biz and has no plans to retire.
Up against Miss Ashley’s formidable allure, Miss Quaid has her work cut out for her to make Vivie something other than a person you just want to slap the starch out of. Her Vivie is all sharp angles and streamlined tailoring, a rich visual contrast to Mrs. Warren’s curves and the plush excess of her Edwardian gowns (both looks exquisitely captured in Robert Perdziola’s costumes).
Yet, the power to Miss Quaid’s portrayal lies in the fact that she makes Vivie so astonishingly, stubbornly young. There is something tender about a young woman quick to condemn and spout her views on life, who at the same time is so untested and so achingly unfamiliar with the ways of the world. While you don’t exactly love Vivie—she is too hard on people and on herself for that—you cannot help but smile at her determination to be forbidding. However, that smile comes with a touch of rue when you see her at the bittersweet end of the play, alone with her numbers-crunching and the hollow clack of the typewriter.
The tragedy of Mrs. Warren is that Vivie fails to see that she has so many more choices and freedoms than her mother had, instead preferring to punish Mrs. Warren for not only making the best of grim circumstances but also refusing to feel ashamed of what she did and continues to do. The crux of the play is who is more worthy of our censure—the madam or the priss?
Mrs. Warren’s Profession
by George Bernard Shaw
directed by Keith Baxter
produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Mrs. Warren’s Profession plays thru July 11, 2010.
For details, directions and tickets, click here.
MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION