Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 3, 2010
Mrs. Warren's Profession by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Doug Hughes. Set design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Original music and sound design by David Van Tieghem. Hair and wig design by Tom Watson. Dialect Consultant Elizabeth Smith. Cast: Cherry Jones, Sally Hawkins, with Adam Driver, Mark Harelik, Edward Hibbert, Michael Siberry.
Yes, these throbbing hearts at the center of Doug Hughes's handsome and harrowing production are much closer kin to Austin and Lee, the rabid, more-alike-than-they-know brothers Sam Shepard created for True West, than stuffy victims of Victorian capitalism. For Kitty (Jones), getting into prostitution some 30 years earlier was more a lifeline than a life force - though over the years the former has gradually become the latter. But Vivie (Hawkins), freed from the threat of her mother's innate poverty by just that choice, feels bound by the delicacy her mother has shunned for so long. What was once a solution to a debilitating problem is now the root of an even greater one.
But this is all in the text; there's never any escaping the economic undercurrents of the play, which because of Kitty's vocation wasn't seen in England for nearly a decade after its 1893 completion, and not in New York until a few years after that (where it was, predictably for the time, scandalous). What's new here is the range of the final scene, set in the London actuary house that Vivie has made her new professional home, in which the women's defining confrontation becomes one neither could have foreseen. Poised behind opposing desks, shoulders hunched and heads sharply inclined, the mother defends her route to a better life and the daughter insists she wants no part of it. If only for an instant, they visually and vocally become each other.
For the tall and sturdy Jones, so well cast and costumed (by Catherine Zuber) as the personification of well-padded leisure, and Hawkins, who's steely and wiry as the victim of a too-good education paid with "ill-gotten" gains, this is no minute achievement. Even when the two figuratively fuse two acts earlier, when Kitty achingly confesses her secret (but not the extent to which she's become - and remains - an industry in England and throughout Europe), you see these women more as kindred spirits than two of a kind. They have powerful convictions, yes, and the drive to go after them, but that's really as far as the similarity detectably extends for most of the evening.
How thrilling it is for the actresses and Hughes to prove you so wrong. With an exquisite background provided by set designer Scott Pask and lighting designer Kenneth Posner, showing scenes both inside and outside of Kitty's opulent country house, as well as buildings evoking those twin specters of religion and business, there's plenty of atmosphere for them to employ in their ministrations. But it's the verbal scenery, constructed when Kitty and Vivie go at it, that really sets the locale as being one of at the forefront of the battle of women's rights. Is it more notable to have complete control over sex, or to be completely free from it? Jones and Hawkins make both halves of the argument convincing.
The alternating scenes, in which the men in the Warrens' lives are given their own due as the women's captors, are far more conventionally rendered - almost, but not quite, to a fault. The glossy innocence that Edward Hibbert brings to Mr. Praed is textually correct, yes, but also presented with none of the guile that could give the lie to his distant emotional involvement with Kitty's work. Michael Siberry is commited and earnest as the reverend whose own ideas of morality are more than a little jumbled. And Mark Harelik, as Kitty's too-forward-thinking business partner, Sir George Crofts, perfectly balances the sleaze and helpfulness so integral into this man who always knows a lot more than he says.
Adam Driver, playing the reverend's son, Frank, is the one relatively weak link here. He doesn't quite find the proper boundaries as either Vivie's well-meaning paramour (who is happy to make his own history with Kitty as well), or as the representative of the emerging world Vivie can't wait to escape. Ideally, Frank should be the bridge between Vivie and Kitty that makes each realize exactly what's at stake. Driver, though tall and well-spoken, doesn't cut an imposing enough figure for that to happen here.
Of course, opposite Jones and Hawkins, who could? Both have developed such satisfying portrayals of competing visions of womanhood that there's no room left for them to be defined - however obliquely - by any man (or the absence of one). These women know that, when it comes right down to it, all they have is each other, and that fact scares them both to death - as well it should. Audiences sampling this Mrs. Warren's Profession, on the other hand, have nothing to fear.