Mrs. Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Anders Cato.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Lord help the world if everyone took to doing the right thing."
In a world created by author George Bernard Shaw everyone would be a Socialist and no one would be abused by the power wielded by Capitalists. It would, sadly, also be a world in which no plays by Shaw would exist. "Mrs. Warren’s Profession," a play he wrote in 1893 but was unable to see produced until a New Haven edition in 1905 put it on the map, deals directly with the Socialist/Capitalist controversy of which he was so fond. In "The Revolutionist’s Handbook" under the title EDUCATION Shaw wrote: "The best brought-up children are those who have seen their parents as they are. Hypocrisy is not the parent’s first duty." This might well be the thesis he espouses in the play, currently on stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival.
Capitalism is what Kitty Warren is about and capitalists, those who work only for personal gain, are definitely prostitutes. Kitty is a successful prostitute, one who owns "houses" in three European capitals. Therefore she is a successful capitalist. Her daughter Vivie is a business woman, hard and direct, also a capitalist, but one who enjoys the best of a man’s world in a woman’s environment. She is an Amazon, a warrior. Where her mother has used a vulgar femininity to gain power, her daughter wields a masculine philosophy of work and personal honor to do the same. Her complete lack of understanding of her mother’s history and her total disdain for the emotions a mother expresses make her a very unsympathetic heroine. Shaw seems to want us to judge the daughter as harshly as she judges her mother. He would have us understand that the capitalist ethic, no matter how it is expressed or utilized, is never a good thing.
The six characters in this play are uneasy humans in the world. Vivie is loved by Frank Gardner, an effete young man without any visible means of support. He has come home to live with his parents since work and education seem to play small part in his vision of his future. He would marry the woman whose mother is wealthy and live off the clipping of coupons. His father, an English clergyman, has no interest in his son’s future marriage until he realizes that his own youthful peregrinations with a prostitute may have produced disastrous results. His morality, a constant issue with Shaw, is false and more prudery than priority.
Sir George Crofts, a friend, and probably lover, of Kitty Warren, is a nobleman with no morals whatsoever. He is her business partner as well as her protector and he owns property she "manages" since women owning property is a tricky thing in nineteenth century Europe. He also has a lust for his lover’s daughter and makes a perfectly foul representation of himself in pursuit of her. Then there is Praed, a friend and fan of Kitty’s, who may or may not be totally aware of her work and her power. He is a self-proclaimed anarchist who is also an artist and an architect. A three-A man who knows everyone involved in this public arena that Vivie’s life becomes, he is the soul of the play and it is a soul corrupted.
The two women who play the Warren’s are powerful actresses, much to be admired for their work here. Lisa Banes is Kitty and Xanthe Elbrick her daughter Vivie. Their scenes together are electrifying and just a bit frightening as they let their intellects and emotions skyrocket into a co-existing orbit. From their first kiss in Act One, a terse and troubled greeting, it is clear that no two women in history have had such a troubled relationship. Kitty’s final denunciation of her daughter is a terrible thing to witness in Banes’ dynamic body, voice and hands. Vivie’s last moments alone are devastating as we see the ravages of a childhood and young womanhood converge in her face as she moves papers in an effort to restore her complacency. Both women are simply brilliant in their roles and we end up disliking both characters equally.
Walter Hudson is Crofts. He makes hatefulness into an art form. He does it very well. As his younger counterpart, Frank, Randy Harrison adds a smarminess to young love that may go undefeated. There is little to like about this man except his good looks. Harrison has them and he uses them well. He turns physical passion into something queasy and emotional love into the most unpleasant emotion. We forgive his unfortunate attempts at a British accent for the portrait he paints around it.
Mark Nelson is a fine Praed. We could almost like him if we understood for certain that he has been a foolish dupe of Kitty’s, but we’re never certain who he really is or what his function actually might be in her life. Nelson plays ambiguity with certainty and that, in itself, is an art.
The finest work, perhaps, is that of Stephen Temperley as the Reverend Samuel Gardner. No one does surprise faces and about-turns like Temperley. He presents us with a complete picture of a man tortured. When he comments on his wife’s moral stand he does so with a totally quizzical manner that betrays his character’s lack of understanding of his own profession and he makes us believe his sincerity. A lovely comic foil for the others, his middle-class morality, as we see and hear it in Temperley’s performance, is exactly what Shaw would elaborate on later in his career.
Anders Cato has done a remarkably good job in presenting all of this unpleasantness from Shaw’s third major work on the BTF stage. He underlines the comedy in the lines with simplicity and brings slowly but surely to the hateful dramatics of the situation, transitioning us with ease into a state of complete disgust. Cato’s talents go well beyond the traffic cop point and pause of other directors who work in this region. He manages to explore the inner workings of actor and character and seems to be able to combine elements of both in his final stage pictures.
Not the play, but the performances; not the philosophy but the direction are the components that should attract an audience to this play which ends the main stage season at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. Every concept of Shaw’s play has been adhered to, even though a few of the cut lines might have given us a bit more insight into the characters’ motivations. This is a tough way to end a season, but given the history of this play and its subject matter certainly a better choice for an ending than a beginning. The BTF has taken risks this summer and this is one of its hardest. For that alone it deserves an audience. For this wonderful cast of courageous actors it deserves one also.
Lisa Banes and Xanthe Elbrick as Kitty and Vivie Warren; photo: Kevin Sprague
Walter Hudson as Sir George Crofts; photo: Kevin Sprague
Xanthe Elbrick and Randy Harrison as Vivie and Frank Gardner; photo: Kevin Sprague
"Mrs. Warren’s Profession" plays through September 1. Tickets range from $37-$64. Students with valid ID receive a 50% discount. For schedules and tickets call the box office at 413-298-5576.