A wordy drama from the 19th century about capitalism, duplicity, and women’s role in English society. Sounds like it might be rather tough to get through, doesn’t it?
Well, don’t be fooled. George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession may have a lot more talk than action, but Director Kathryn MacMillan’s production is positively lively and dynamic. And it hasn’t lost is power to astonish.
In Shaw’s play (first performed in 1893), Vivie Warren has just graduated from Cambridge University with a degree in mathematics. She’s the prototypical Victorian “modern woman”: enlightened, upright, and supremely independent. But her bright future turns cloudy when she is visited by her long-estranged mother Kitty. Soon Vivie learns that her education and her extravagant lifestyle have been made possible by Kitty’s profession – as the owner of a string of brothels.
What makes Mrs. Warren’s Profession so fascinating is that the conflict that arises between mother and daughter is not strictly a matter of morality. Shaw uses the play as a way to condemn the British economic system that sentenced women like Kitty to a life of poverty, crushing factory work, and early death, leaving them with few avenues to survival. And he explores issues such as honor, disgrace, and hypocrisy.
Shaw analyzes women’s place in society in a way that anticipates the feminist movement of the following century. And he fills the play with rich, memorable characters and a great deal of his trademark wit.
Claire Inie-Richards and Mary Martello make a striking and sprightly contrast on the stage. The accents the two ladies use for their characters – upper class and refined for Inie-Richards’ Vivie, lower class and raucous for Martello’s Kitty – mark them as coming from different worlds, but there’s more to it than that. Inie-Richards’ Vivie is cold, clinical and reserved, with a judgmental stare on her face. Martello’s Kitty, meanwhile, is smiling and boisterous, openly flirtatious, and constantly trying to win over everyone she meets. Both performers command the stage in very different ways, earning the viewers’ sympathy while ably performing some lengthy speeches.
Even Janus Stefanowocz’s masterful costumes for the two women mark them as coming from different worlds. Both wear long skirts with high belts that are appropriate to the show’s era. But Kitty’s clothes are filled with color, patterns and flair, while Vivie’s are relatively plain in comparison. When Vivie finally asserts her independence, there is a change – a subtle indication that Vivie is on the right path.
The four men in the cast all make solid contributions. Daniel Fredrick gives Vivie’s playboy suitor Frank the right mixture of supportiveness and superficiality, while John Lopes is filled with bluster as Frank’s father, a minister who is lacking in piety. David Bardeen is endearing as an innocent interloper, while Mrs. Warren’s unsavory business partner is played by Andrew Criss with a dash of menace.
Dirk Durosette’s versatile set design provides for four distinct settings with a minimum of alteration. And MacMillan’s direction makes the most of the Lantern’s thrust seating arrangement. As the play reaches its conclusion, as Vivie speaks of her place in society, she stands in the outmost corner of the stage. She’s surrounded by the audience – the world, in effect, sitting in judgment of her. It gives extra depth to Shaw’s words, verifying that they are just as relevant as they ever were.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including an intermission.
Mrs. Warren’s Profession plays through October 9, 2016 at the Lantern Theater Company, performing at St. Stephen’s Theater – 10th & Ludlow Streets, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (215) 829-0395, or purchase them online.