Monday, October 4, 2010

Broadway: Mrs. Warren's Profession

We saw the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Mrs. Warren's Profession on Saturday and just loved it.  Both Cherry Jones and Sally Hawkins were truly outstanding.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession, one of George Bernhard Shaw’s best and most controversial plays, centers on the relationship between Mrs. Kitty Warren (Cherry Jones), a high-class prostitute and madam, and her daughter Vivie (Sally Hawkins), who is shocked to learn that her mother has been engaged in the world’s oldest profession – and that her own Cambridge education and upper-class life style has been financed by the fruits of those “immoral” activities. Mrs. Warren initially placates her daughter by explaining that it was her own impoverished childhood and lack of any other real opportunities which led her into “the life” and the two women temporarily reconcile – until Vivie learns that her mother is still engaged in her highly profitable business, at which time she no longer accepts her mother’s explanation of early poverty as an adequate rationalization for her behavior.

Shaw claimed to have written the play in 1893 "to draw attention to the truth that prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing, and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together." In doing so, he ran afoul of the Lord Chamberlain, Britain’s official theatre censor, who banned the play in England for a decade before it was finally allowed to be produced in a members-only club in London. In actuality, the play may not have been banned as much for its portrayal of prostitution as for its scarcely veiled attack on society’s religious hypocrisy, conventional sexual mores, and exploitative capitalist economic system, all of which, in Shaw’s opinion, were complicit in permitting (if not, indeed, actively encouraging) the institution of prostitution.

All of Shaw’s plays, including Mrs. Warren’s Profession, are so well written, their plot structures so intriguing, and their characters so well developed, that one might think that even when they are not perfectly rendered on stage, they probably are still worth seeing. But that is not necessarily the case: the Compassion Theater Company’s recent ambitious Off Off Broadway production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, for example, was so badly miscast and misdirected, and the lighting and set design so badly flawed, that the production was ultimately disappointing, notwithstanding Shaw’s genius (see my review of that production on July 19, 2010).

No such criticism can be lodged against this production by the Roundabout Theatre Company, however. On the contrary, the acting is so superb, the direction so precise, the casting so on point, and the set design so stylish and stylized that the play is a total triumph.

Kitty Warren’s character is so nuanced and multi-layered that a takes a truly accomplished actor to get it right, but Cherry Jones is more than up to the task. Both in word and manner, she manages to communicate the upper-class veneer her character has acquired as a high priced prostitute while retaining her lower-class origins, her need for control over her own life and her desire to extend that control to her daughter, as well as her love of money and what it will buy, while still evidencing the deepest love and concern for her daughter’s welfare.

Sally Hawkins makes her Broadway debut in this play as Kitty Warren’s daughter Vivie - and what a debut it is! Playing opposite Cherry Jones, Hawkins conveys a strength of purpose as Vivie that is more than a match for her mother’s steel will. Without ever saying so in so many words, Hawkins manages to get across the message that her character Vivie, a “New Age” woman of a century ago, in the very earliest stages of the feminist movement, might well have followed in her mother’s footsteps, had she lived a generation earlier and in her mother’s original economic circumstances. And Jones similarly succeeds in communicating (without ever saying so) that Kitty might well have turned her business acumen to a more socially acceptable profession than prostitution, had she grown up in her daughter’s time and with her daughter’s social and financial advantages.

The other characters in the play also do splendidly in their respective roles. Edward Hibbert portrays the part of Mr. Praed, one of Kitty Warren’s old friends (and perhaps one of her one time lovers or clients as well) with just the right degree of reserve and understatement. Mark Harelik beautifully plays the part of Sir George Crofts, Kitty’s business partner and assuredly one of her early lovers/clients, who is desirous now of extending his sway to Vivie, with the cool, dispassionate calculation that Shaw finds so despicable. Michael Siberry does an excellent job in the role of Reverend Sam Gardner, another of Kitty’s one-time lovers and just the sort of weak, class conscious, hypocritical churchman for whom Shaw exhibits such contempt. And Adam Driver plays the role of Frank Gardner, Reverend Sam Gardner’s ne’er-do-well son, with just the right touch of self-centered entitlement as to provide the perfect foil for Shaw to express his antipathy to male dominated class stratified society.

The many inter-related themes in this play include inter-generational strife, conventional social mores, the capitalist economic system, class stratification, marital relationships, patriarchy, prostitution, possible incest and, not least of all, early examples of feminism and the half dozen accomplished actors in the play deal with all of them brilliantly and play off one another as consummate professionals. Doug Hughes also deserves considerable credit for his pitch perfect direction and the exceptionally handsome sets designed by Scott Pask further enrich this theatre going experience.

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