Mrs. Warren’s Profession

By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Doug Hughes
Starring Cherry Jones, Sally Hawkins, Mark Harelik, Edward Hibbert
Roundabout Theatre Company, American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street
production web site:
previews begin September 3, 2010, opens October 3, 2010

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 29, 2010

Vivie Warren (Sally Hawkins) and Kitty Warren (Cherry Jones)

George Bernard Shaw‘s play in four acts is presented with a single intermission by director Dough Hughes in the muscularly designed presentation currently running at the American Airlines Theatre.  Production values glow and shimmer and glower where appropriate.   Set by Scott Pask, lighting by Kenneth Posner, costumes by Catherine Zuber (watch them establish extremes in the first act, and come to a kind of balanced stayle between the two women in the second) highlight and augment character  — and begin to overwhelm the imbalanced ensemble.  Set change-overs transport us from Mrs. Warren’s country garden to her country living room to another country garden to finally to daughter Vivie’s city office and take much too much time.  (The time to admire the Arts and Crafts design of the stage curtain, variously illuminated for our visual pleasure during these delays, is in fact appreciated. ) While Shaw’s honed beautiful evocative  political theatrical words still bite and inspire — in this production due to the fluttery, surface, confused performance of the physically lovely Sally Hawkins as daughter Vivie, the overall wallop of the work is compromised.

Vivie and Kitty in Vivie’s city office.

The first act (that culminates in the scene pictured above) is transporting.  The second act that culminates in a Hopper-esque office visual (pictured at right), intended to be Vivie’s denunciation of her mother and her resolve — “I am prepared to take life as it is” she tells us —  falls terribly, screechingly flat.  The play deserves better. Full disclosure: I have seen a stunning Chicago production of this play that was spare, powerful, and just blew my socks off. I know it is possible. Here with  resources that exceed most Chicago theatre companies’ wildest dreams, the core importance of character development, layered studies, and cohesive ensemble acting is revealed. Starkly. By their absence.

Vivie (Sally Hawkins) has been raised in boarding schools with little contact with her mother Kitty (Cherry Jones).  When the play opens Vivie is visiting her mother at the country house she may have seen rarely in the past as a newly-minted college graduate with plans to go into an accounting firm partnership with a female colleague.  Her intentions are murky for the weekend: confront her mother about her background?  Have a battle of wits?  How indeed is it possible for a young woman to be as entirely ignorant of her background and her family story as portrayed by Shaw?  [One can put those plot concerns aside with a multi-dimensional sympathetic portrayal of the smart, practical, strong, educated Vivie, such as the spare powerful 2007 production I reference above presented by Remy Bumppo Theatre Company in Chicago.  This is not the case here.]  Men also populate this plot: Phraed (Edward Hibbert) who knows just enough about Kitty’s business not to be shocked when it’s disclosed and remains a friend of both women; George Crofts (Mark Harelik) , Kitty’s business partner who attempts to blackmail himself into Vivie’s life and when that fails presents a family secret to punish her; and the social-climbing hypocritical father and son team of Reverend Samuel Gardner (Michael Siberry) , once a playmate of Kitty’s, and his son Frank (Adam Driver) who has eyes more for Vivie’s imagined inheritance than for Vivie herself.  We need to care about Vivie as the through line of the final half of this play as we do about Kitty in the first half.  And that sympathy is not here achieved with this Vivie.  There are vocal issues (the word shrill comes to mind), there are character choices (even a blue stockinged highly educated woman in the early 20th century would have some sense of humor and warmth). And there are character actions that seems glaringly misguided (e.g. a woman who respects books and education would not hack at several newly arrived tomes in the process of cutting the pages,  as if roughly slicing pieces of bread, as Miss Hawkins does in the scene just before the intermission — this detail that has disturbed me more in the recollection than it did in my two viewings of this production).  And we end up not caring as much about her character’s choices as we need to, in order to make this play work.

All this said, there are many reasons to visit this production. Cherry Jones creates a stunning Kitty and in the first act closer — the post dinner, complete-disclosure story-revelation of the nature of her businesses (prostitution) and the reasons for that choice — she may have crafted one of those “were you there when Cherry Jones wore that amazing red dress in Mrs. Warren and revealed her history to her daughter” moments in theatre history.  Edward Hibbert has created a delightful Praed who delivers the waspish delightful Shaw lines with sympathy and aplomb.

The cold realities Shaw addresses about social expectations and social hypocrisies and hard work and the role of women do not have to leave an audience cold.  I have felt triumphant and empowered by this same story when it is presented as human tales of human beings with whom you sympathize, and two woman who assembled distinct versions of independence that were not simply angry flailing against the world but choices out of strength.  And this production as a whole falters on that test.  “If there’s a thing I hate in a woman, it is want of character,” Jones as Kitty pronounces to Vivie in the final scene.  Yes.

Edward Hopper. “Office at Night”, 1940.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 30, 2010)

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