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Vol. LXIII, No. 3
 
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
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MOTHER-DAUGHTER REUNION: “My dear mother: you are a wonderful woman: you are stronger than all England,” Vivie (Madeleine Hutchins) tells Mrs. Warren (Suzanne Bertish) before bitter truths emerge and fierce conflict ensues, in George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 15.

Mother and Daughter Clash in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”; Shaw Classic Was Banned in 1893, Still Troubling Today

Donald Gilpin

Banned in 1893 and attacked by early reviewers as “wholly immoral and degenerate,” George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession still has the power to provoke and disturb audiences.

In 2009 the play is not likely to be banned for addressing the subject of prostitution, nor for its portrayal of the successful, proud, and unrepentant title character, a businesswoman who owns and operates brothels throughout Europe. The play was prohibited by the Lord Chamberlain in London in the 1890s; a subsequent production in New Haven and then in New York in 1905 was shut down by the authorities; and it wasn’t until 1924 that Mrs. Warren’s Profession was finally granted a license to perform in England. Because of English censorship, however, there is no direct reference to prostitution in the play.

Emily Mann’s current production of this play, at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, resonates most strongly through its stunning and sad portrayal of a doomed mother-daughter relationship and the plights of these formidable, successful individuals, who are both ultimately victims of a society that leaves women with no good choices in life. In characteristic Shavian manner in the mode of Shaw’s Arms and the Man (1894), Pygmalion (1912), Heartbreak House (1919), Saint Joan (1923) and dozens more classics of the theatrical canon — the ensemble of four men and two women delivers their serious subject matter with eloquence, wit and humor.

The two female characters here tower over the proceedings, with the men providing an intriguing mini-cross-section of English society, all three-dimensional but all playing merely supporting roles in the mother-daughter struggle—for self-justification in the mother’s case and self-determination in the daughter’s. A third protagonist, inexorably driving the action, is the society itself, with its hypocrisies and economic inequities that forced Mrs. Warren, many years before the play begins, to choose prostitution in order to escape a life of poverty and misery for herself and her daughter.

As Shaw wrote in his 1902 “Preface” to the play, he does not intend to judge either Mrs. Warren and her choice of prostitution, nor her daughter Vivie and her repudiation of her mother. “The whole aim of my play is to throw that guilt on the British public itself.” He goes on to explain that “Mrs. Warren’s Profession is a play for women; that it was written for women; that it has been performed and produced mainly through the determination of women that it should be performed and produced; that the enthusiasm of women made its first performance excitingly successful; and that not one of these women had any inducement to support it except their belief in the timeliness and the power of the lesson the play teaches.”

The timeliness of this play in the twenty-first century lies not just in the moral and political controversy that still swirls around the profession of prostitution and the brutal trafficking of women in the international sex trade, but also in the dilemma of all working women who make compromises for the sake of their families and in the most intimate and always difficult relationships of all mothers and daughters.

Ms Mann’s production dynamically foregrounds the two women: Vivie (Madeleine Hutchins), the outspoken, “new woman” of the 1890s, and her strong-willed mother Kitty Warren (Suzanne Bertish), who finds herself in a desperate fight to defend her life’s choices and to hold onto her daughter. The climactic moments in the play focus on them, in a long, revelatory second-act confrontation just before intermission and a final encounter in the closing moments of the play. The men circulate on the periphery and sporadically assert themselves, but they exit and leave no distractions as Vivie and Mrs. Warren twice engage in devastating verbal battle at center stage.

Ms Hutchins and Ms. Bertish are equal to the challenges of these monumental roles. The latter is widely experienced on both sides of the Atlantic, a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and a Broadway performer in Nicholas Nickelby, Salome (with Al Pacino) and The Moliere Comedies, for which she earned a Tony nomination. Ms. Hutchins, a seasoned young British actress, more than holds her own as the outspoken, rebellious daughter, demanding respect and determined to forge her own life through her work, in a life without romance, beauty or her mother.

Edward Hibbert (Gil Chesterton for eleven seasons on NBC’s Frasier and veteran of numerous Broadway and off-Broadway productions) adopts an Oscar Wildeian style and wit to depict Mrs. Warren’s friend Praed, an architect and lover of the world of art and beauty that is not available to the women characters in the play.

Rocco Sisto’s Sir George Crofts is a menacing capitalist bully, business partner of Mrs. Warren and an ominously coarse suitor for the hand of Vivie. Robin Chadwick plays the elderly country parson Reverend Samuel Gardner, who is less concerned with spiritual matters than social status and outward propriety. The possibility that his son Frank (Michael Izquierdo) might be the child of a past liaison between the Reverend and Mrs. Warren creates interesting speculation and humor, particularly as Frank pursues his suit with Vivie, who might be his half sister. Conflict between the “agreeably disrespectful” Frank and his conservative father provides entertainment and further perspective on generational conflict in the final years of the Victorian Era.

The colorful, interesting set design by Eugene Lee, with lighting by Jeff Croiter, depicts four different locales. Picturesque cottage gardens, Vivie and Mrs. Warren’s house in Surrey in the first act and the rectory garden in the third act, contrast with the interior of the cottage in act two and the London law offices to which Vivie has decamped in act four. The gardens and serene pastoral atmosphere create a deceptively charming foreground to the spacious, dark, undecorated upstage area behind. Also looming evocatively over the stage is a tall, industrial, metallic-looking proscenium arch, suggesting, perhaps, the austere future that lies ahead for Vivie and England in the twentieth century.

Ms. Mann has directed with a sure hand, moving the action smoothly and briskly within and between the acts. Appropriate casting, acting, and directorial choices all put the fascinating mother-daughter relationship in the spotlight here. With its intense social, moral, and political issues and Shaw’s characteristically long-winded dialogue, the play at times seems more like a political debate than anything resembling a contemporary conversation, but the language is almost always striking, lively, and entertaining and the performers handle it with skill and eloquence.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession is consistently captivating to see and hear, despite the lack of physical action. Ms Mann has wisely kept the blocking simple and relied on Shaw’s brilliant script and her audience’s willingness and aptitude for sustained close listening. Last Saturday night’s audience — average age middle-aged and beyond — was up to the challenges and highly appreciative; whether this play can attract and engage younger audiences, who are less accustomed to sustained listening without action interludes, remains to be seen.

In an 1897 letter to actress Ellen Terry, Shaw wrote, about Mrs. Warren’s Profession, “It’s much my best play; but it makes my blood run cold; I can hardly bear the most appalling bits of it. Ah, when I wrote that, I had some nerve.” Shaw’s “shocking” play, in McCarter’s sterling, deftly performed production, continues to make its impact felt, with humor, trenchant social commentary and deep insight into human beings and their relationships.

George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession will play at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre at 91 University Place in Princeton through February 15. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org for tickets and further information.

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