Years ago, when Storyville, the famous red light district of New Orleans was closing down, Mayor Martin Behrman said this about prostitution: “You can make it illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular.” Whores with hearts of gold, noble courtesans, and clever “dance-hall hostesses” have been strutting their stuff on stage to the delight of generations of audiences.
For their first full-length production and to close out their ambitious first season, Rainbow Theatre Project has chosen as sweet a play about the harsh life of aging hookers as there ever was. Back in 1981, her Pulitzer Prize years ahead of her, Paula Vogel introduced a group of women in “the life” facing their twilight of their years.
The ladies of The Oldest Profession are proud of their work ethic, care about their customers, and have formed a strong family bond over nearly half a century. All the recognizable types are present: the practical and wise madam, the woman-child, the sassy woman of color, and the elegant Southern belle. The fourth member of their stable, a hard-as-nails gal who sees the wisdom of changing with the times, tries to push the others to step up their game. “Old vessels leak,” she tells her stable-mates. Mae, their leader, longs for the days when there was honor in the trade. “This is America – where any girl can start in an alley and become a madam.”
Times have changed in the fifty years since Mae moved her girls from New Orleans to Manhattan, and so have their fortunes. Their regulars are older than the girls and they are no spring chickens. Aching bones, digestive issues, and impotent clients are the norm.
On the verge of Ronald Reagan’s election, the stable begins to shrink. But how the ladies face the grim reaper is anything but grim. Vogel’s depiction of death is one part-Beckett, one part-Bob Fosse, with a dash of Thornton Wilder. When a working girl passes on, their ticket into the afterlife is a raunchy song from the backrooms of Storyville and their heaven is a sight to see, thanks to Vogel’s imaginative conceit, the scenic design by Greg Stevens and the cast who bring it home with style and verve.
Director Elizabeth Pringle allows the simplicity of the play and its metaphysical atmosphere to intermingle, drawing a fine line from the cold, cruel world to the paradise waiting for them beyond the grave. Assisting in the separation is the fine work by Maureen Codelka as the resident honky-tonk piano player, who serves as accompanist for the ladies’ occasional musical cabaret interludes and narrator throughout the play.
The cast is uniformly excellent in portraying the delicious individuality of each character. Emily Morrison is their madam, Mae, who manages her girls with a steady hand and motherly touch. “I am a business woman with the soul of a whore,” she declares. Morrison is also convincing when Mae begins to get confused and the other girls realize her mind is going – a heartbreaking scene. Tricia McCauley is Ursula, the more direct, less motherly madam and Mae’s main foil. McCauley allows Ursula to wear her bitterness and Reagan-influenced business sense like a badge of honor.
THE OLDEST PROFESSION
June 4 – 21
Rainbow Theatre at
Mead Theatre Lab in Flashpoint Gallery
916 G St NW
1 hour, 35 minutes, no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Edna (Desiré DuBose), a cross between Bessie Smith and Miss Kitty, has the stamina to handle a roomful of johns but needs an hour to digest her food. The belle of the ball, so to speak, is Lillian, played with panache by Diana Haberstick. With her high class Southern drawl, and a twinkle in her eye, she mixes charm-school airs with a saucy flair. “We should get Social Security for all the social service we have provided.” While discussing a younger working girl honing in on their territory, Lillian dubs the rival a “declassé twat.”
Child-like and big-hearted, Vera (Charlotte Akin) is really the soul of the stable. Vera is the most-endearing, as well as the most heart-breaking member of the old team. Akin conveys Vera’s joie de vivre with wide-eyed innocence, even as time ravages the stable and takes away her extended family, one by one. When Akin describes every nuance of a meal Vera has savored or how she feels in the arms of a cherished customer, Vera becomes an open book.
The oldest profession, as seen in The Oldest Profession, may be romanticized but it makes for an endearing, gritty and witty play. A notable choice and highly commendable season closer for Rainbow Theatre Project.
The Oldest Profession by Paula Vogel . Directed by Elizabeth Pringle. Featuring Charlotte Akin, Desiré Dubose, Diana Haberstick, Tricia McCauley, and Emily Morrison . Music Director: Maureen “Reenie” Codelka . Lighting Designer and Stage Manager: Angelo Merenda . Props: Junette Pinkney . Set and Costume Designer: Greg Stevens . Sound Design: Ian Van Zandt . Choreographer: Alison Waldman . Technical Director: Matty Griffiths . Produced by Rainbow Theatre Project . Reviewed by Jeffrey Walker.