"There are no secrets better kept than the secrets everybody guesses," says Sir George Crofts in the third act of George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession. The specific secrets the deceptively genteel Sir George refers to are related to the title, at once a cheeky deflection of the play's main issue and a sly allusion to it (Mrs. Warren's profession is, among other things, the world's oldest).
But he could just as easily be referring to the new Irish Repertory Theatre production of the show. Directed by Charlotte Moore, it's thoroughly professional and even entertaining. It doesn't, however, easily yield up many of the colors or surprises of Shaw's script, considered salacious and even scandalous on both sides of the Atlantic when it premiered roughly a century ago.
That's not to say that anyone expects this story about an aging prostitute and her headstrong daughter to have exactly the same impact it once did; for better or worse, frank talk about sex is more prevalent and acceptable now than it was then. But even if gasps are no longer the order of the day when it comes to this subject matter, one still has the right to expect the intensity of the story as enacted to cut to the heart, if not through it. And that's what seldom happens in Moore's handsome but vacant production; with only isolated exceptions, the characters confront confounding moral and social dilemmas with the passion of a jogger who just stepped in chewing gum.
It's fortunate, though, that those exceptions include the redoubtable Dana Ivey as Mrs. Warren and impressive newcomer Laura Odeh as her daughter Vivie. Always in the case of the former and usually in the case of latter, we feel the devastating personal impact of the corseted strictures of the Victorian era. Mrs. Warren, driven to her career out of necessity and now locked into it for similar reasons despite her financial security, is a product of an unjust society; Vivie, an accomplished young mathematician with a distaste for art, is a similar creation, albeit one with a moral center defined somewhat differently than her mother's.
So, as is often the case, the scenes in which the two tilt are this production's dramatic highlights. In both the lengthy scene capping the second act, in which Mrs. Warren reveals the truth of her past to a startlingly accepting Vivie, and in the fourth act's final scene, when the two confront each other about the same topic on considerably less forgiving terms, the actresses do justice to Shaw's surprisingly lucid arguments both for and against Mrs. Warren's rather unconventional lifestyle.
Ivey plays Mrs. Warren as a sternly sensible, established businesswoman, who long ago accepted certain lies as truth; Odeh's Vivie is more volatile, a go-getter yet in need of convincing about many things. It's their similarities that draw them together and eventually destroy their relationship: Each is a controlled woman not so readily capable of dealing with tumultuous changes in her worldview. So, when they go at it, either subtly or bloodily,you sense the symbiotic relationship between the two, both as individuals and as representatives of a world constantly battling over questions of morality.
Unfortunately, none of these same concerns are reflected by the men in the company, leaving the implicit sexism both Mrs. Warren and Vivie are rebelling against to be a critically missing piece of the puzzle. Sir George, an associate of Mrs. Warren's with knowledge she'd prefer he kept to himself, is played by Sam Tsoutsouvas with no appreciation of the character's razor-edged duplicity; Kevin Collins plays Vivie's suitor, Frank Gardner, with an interest that is too fraternal from the start to allow the development of their relationship to have any believable emotional or dramatic impact. Kenneth Garner, as Frank's pastor father, and David Staller, as a knowing family friend also interested in Vivie, provide no clues as to why they're present in the play, let along hanging around with other people at all.
Some of this can be traced to Moore's listless staging, which tends to deemphasize the actors at especially inopportune moments, but the men's milquetoast, borderline interchangeable personalities don't aid matters. And despite the turntable that set designer Dan Kuchar has wisely utilized to facilitate scene changes, the production isn't awash in an energy that allows the laughs (of which there are plenty) or the drama (of which there's even more) to develop into a rich, full evening. Everything seems, like David Toser's costumes and Mary Jo Dondlinger's lights, correct but cold.
Ivey, though, has no problem heating things up, even if she is also occasionally hampered by her dullish surroundings. And when Odeh joins her, the two come as close to starting fires as anyone does in this Mrs. Warren's Profession. This kind of fire in the theatre is always welcome, but if we'll likely never understand a thrill comparable to the controversy the play originally ignited, it's not enough that the power the play does still possess remain a secret as well.
Mrs. Warren's Profession