What was immediately noticeable in the recent run of Mrs. Warren’s Profession at Theatre Palisades Pierson Playhouse was not so much the gender equity confab hardly downplayed in George Bernard Shaw’s 100-year-old play, but the freshness with which director Sabrina Ann Loyd illuminated a piece born in a time of heavy-handed, suffocating, Edwardian, sexual double-standards between men and women. In 1902, when Mrs. Warren’s Profession was first produced audiences had to have been electrified by the racy ideas of female equality and challenges to societal custom where lower class suppresion, gender bias and parental ownership were the social status quo.
Theatregoers today tend to pigeonhole the classics as ‘dated’, old museum pieces, not worthy of the kind of respect or real reflection they might have been accorded in their original productions. This version of Mrs. Warren’s Profession however, aided by a simple set design and straightforward stage direction, claimed a modernity that was thoroughly encouraging.
There were dull moments to be sure. Long cadences of dialog drawn out by the actors’ struggles for the accent work (not including Jenna Tovey/Vivie, whose command of the text was impeccable), occasional slow going repartee and age-old ideals about women expended by all the characters, of course. But listening to Shaw’s dialog, given perspective through Lloyd’s pointedly, even-paced guidance, exquisitely magnified the extraordinary peripherality of the men, who indeed have the upper hand in most things, and are generally either surprised by or occasionally find useful, the intelligence of women here – although far from reverentially. Contradictory to the times and the setup in this instance however, it is their female counterparts who claim utter dominance in the play.
The story centers on the relationship between Mrs. Kitty Warren, a former prostitute and current brothel owner and her daughter, Vivie, an intelligent and pragmatic young woman who has just graduated from university, and has come home to get acquainted with her mother for the first time in her life. Mrs. Warren, arrives with her business partner Sir George Crofts who is immediately attracted to Vivie and makes an offer of marriage. Vivie however is romantically involved with George Gardner, a spendthrift, social-climbing, pastor’s son who sees Vivie as his meal ticket. As the visit progresses the unsettling question of Vivie’s birth father continually arises making every relationship a bit dicey. The real conflict comes into play however when Mrs. Warren confesses what she does for a living and the reason for her choice. Now a Madame, she became a prostitute to support her daughter and give her the opportunities she never had.
That is where it gets ‘hot’. The two women, vastly different in breeding, bearing and lifestyle yet exactly alike in will, go head to head when Vivie laudes her mother as a champion but then criticizes her for not leaving the profession now that she is rich enough to no longer need it.
Each accuses the other of being ‘hard’ and they are both right. Neither can nor will bend and the consequence is that Vivie walks away from her mother and her wealth permanently, for an independent life – same as her mother – only in what she sees as a more respectable path. The truth though, is that Vivie’s choice is no more elevated than Mrs. Warren’s. It’s quite possible that Vivie, in the long run will have chosen the more ardous life that her mother worked so hard to elevate her from. Only time will tell. The dilemma between the two women is an interesting confluence and Vivie by no means solidly emerges a heroine, or Warren for that matter.
Overall, the production is a triumph for Lloyd, who has painstakingly put together a vibrant conversation about women’s issues through a 20th century classic.
Theatre Palisades presents George Bernard Shaw’s social commentary, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, directed by Sabrina Lloyd and produced by Martha Hunter and Sherman Wayne by special permission with Samuel French. The cast features (in alphabetical order) Brooks Darnell, Susan Hardie, Craig Jessen, Frank Krueger, Ken MacFarlane and Jenna Tovey.
Photo (above) Jenna Tovey and Susan Hardie in Theatre Palisade’s, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”.