theater (reviews)

review: mrs. warren’s profession

[originally published: http://www.aislesay.com/CHI-MRS.html]

MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION

by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by David Darlow
Featuring Annabel Armour, Kevin Gudahl,
and Joe Van Slyke
Remy Bumppo Theatre Company
at Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theatre
2257 N. Lincoln Avenue / (773) 871-3000
http://remybumppo.org
Through April 22, 2007

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
March 18, 2007

Remy Bumppo‘s production of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” staged in a Joseph Cornell shadow box of a set, is a perfect platform for illuminating a range of still current themes including: social repression (and ways to evade same), the roles of women, the intense dynamics between mothers and daughters, feminism, and self-respect and self-actualization. Mrs. Warren reflects at one point “What’s a woman worth, what’s life worth, without her self-respect?” “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” in the hands of this expert company takes us on a journey set in 1907, but save a few details, could be set today. Humor, social commentary, and drama in equal measure. A delightful production.

The Warren household includes Mrs. Kitty Warren (Annabel Armour), a single mother and successful businesswoman, who is enjoying a visit at her home in Surrey from her young adult and college educated daughter Vivie (Susan Shunk) in the summer of 1907. We first meet smart and judgmental Vivie and then several middle-aged men who wander through, also visiting Surrey or who live there: Praed (Donald Brearley), Sir George Crofts (Kevin Gudahl), and local Reverend Samuel Gardner (Joe Van Slyke). The final male character is young Vivie’s age mate, a Surrey local, and potential summer flirtation, Frank Gardner (Matt Schwader), son of Reverend Samuel. Kitty has a business about which Vivie knows little before the day of the play; Crofts is somehow involved as a business colleague; Praed is an old friend of Kittys who Vivie meets for the first time on this visit; and the local Reverend and his son provide superficial morality and perhaps other secrets to be uncovered.

The men in the story represent archetypes and moral and social roles. We have Phraed the aesthete, good friend but what does he do for a living and what, other than entertaining good manners does he offer? Crofts, Mrs. Warren’s business partner, has smarmy good manners, an obsequious air, and is a social realist who delivers some of the play’s best lines. Crofts sees women strategically, as commodities, in his business and in his private life. The “Roman Father” local Reverend Gardner represents superficial charm, small town friendliness, and a man who lives with secrets. And finally his son Frank, who goes “regularly on the razzle dazzle” (i.e. enjoys his father’s resources and has yet to find a career), provides an early potential mate and banter partner for Vivie. The details about who proposes, who doesn’t propose, and the true nature of all the family relationships should be left to the viewer.

Deep in the second of four acts, we have our first scene between mother and daughter. We as an audience are waiting at this point to understand the underlying dynamic and drive animating the familiar yet slightly strained energy between the two women. Some of this of course reflects the age of the young delightfully portrayed Vivie. At one point Vivie says to her mother, frustrated at Kitty’s proposal to just swoop in and determine where and how Vivie is to live. “Don’t you think I have a way of life like other people?” What this production introduces (or what my response to this exchange in this production adds) is another dimension to what this “way of life” might entail — Vivie talks about an intensely close friendship with a female colleague back in the city, for example. Kitty Warren is taken to task on all sides beginning with this interaction: are you really my mother? Where is my family? When Vivie learns that the source of the resources that have supported her upbringing in boarding schools and at university has been high-class brothels her mother has run with her sister and Crofts, Vivie ultimately understands this in the context of women of business, making do in the world. However, because Kitty allows Vivie to think that these houses were past and not current businesses, therefore not being totally truthful with her, the stage is set for a final act challenge to their relationship. These are women who fight tears, need each other, know to work hard. And we don’t know if they will ever find their way to one another.

The set designed by Tim Morrison evokes images of a past time in European capitals through fragments of business receipts written in quill pen (what might those transactions entail we wonder?) and dance hall women in the style of Toulouse-Lautrec. Shifting, parsimoniously selected set pieces (properties designed by Ross Moreno) with a stable back stage; provides a suggestive rather than thoroughly realistic stage set and keeps our focus on the words and the lives of the characters. Careful illumination of faces and items in the intimate lighting design by Richard Norwood maintains this focus continually, thrillingly on the words. Dreamy sound design by Joe Cerqua focuses primarily on music to play off and on and interscenic mood creation. And dramaturg Peter Davis has crafted artful and illuminating program notes as well as a detailed study guide to accompany this production.

Quoting favorite lines from this play can become friendly sport. From Crofts we have several. “If you’re going to choose your friends on moral principles you’ll have to clear out of the country.” Also the essential “There are no secrets better kept than those everybody guesses.” From Kitty we have “Lord help the world if everyone took to doing the right thing.” And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Warren mother and daughter beg the question of modern audiences: with whom do you sympathize? Some might say that each character ultimate gets what she sought. Shaw is very unsentimental in his belief in individuals to craft their own identity and their need for independence. In this light, Vivie’s search for independence is not a tragedy but a strength. Some could respond to the core dynamic of this play – the role in society for independent and educated women – through fear or joy depending upon their emotional responses to feminism. The play itself provides humor, political commentary, and delightfully crafted theatrical rhythms. This production highlights the playwright’s intentions and provides an experience that will feel fresh and contemporary. Remy Bumppo does it again.

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 18, 2007)

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