note: entire contents copyright 1999 by Christopher Harding
Reviewed by Christopher Harding
The Huntington Theatre Company ushers in its 18th season with a warm and wonderfully insightful production of "Mrs. Warren's Profession" by George Bernard Shaw.
The 1894 comedy-drama, one of Shaw's earliest works, had to wait over thirty years before it was first professionally produced in England; the US premiere was closed down after its first New York performance on charges that it was the "limit of stage indecency."
The plot concerns a modern-thinking young woman who discovers that her mother has been both a prostitute and a madam, though the raciest line in the play is "Let's go get covered up with leaves."
Shaw, an ardent socialist and atheist, was much more interested in skewering capitalism than he was in titillating his audience Many people too hastily dismiss the play today as dated because they are too sophisticated to be shocked by such topics as prostitution, but in fact Shaw was a post-feminist thinker. Many of his open-ended questions remain hard to face today it's just they are not sexual in nature. Shaw believed in treating females exactly like males -- as women claimed they want to be treated so if a woman is involved in a exploiting other women she should be held as equally reprehensible as her male co-investors, but that's a concept that some feminists might try to argue away.
Michael Bloom, 1999 Elliott Norton Award winning Outstanding Director for "Gross Indecency" at the Huntington, outdoes himself in staging this much more complex work. Under Bloom's direction, the cast humanize and humorize the way characters in this frequently produced work are performed. The title role, for example, is usually played as the picture of propriety. Mariette Hartley, however, is more passionate, fidgety and anxious than previous Kitty Warrens lapsing in moments of anger back into her Cockney origins.
Around this visiting star is the well-oiled company of Huntington regular: Kate Goehring stars as Vivie, the math whiz daughter who takes refuge from life in her skill with actuarial tables; Munson Hicks plays a favorite Shavian target, a disreputable clergyman, and Jared Reed charms as Vivie's handsome, but not quite worthy beau. Russell Parkman's assortment of sets at times deliberately looks like stage scenery, but each piece works brilliantly with the mood of the given act.
The Huntington's "Mrs. Warren Profession" avoids the melodramatic and sentimental pitfalls lurking in the act-ending mother-daughter confrontations to lay bare the hardcore economic realities that Shaw wanted to expose, yet leaves the audience with memories of a laughter-filled night at the theater and plenty to think about in the morning