Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Mrs. Warren's Profession
Also see Cameron's review of Notes of a Native Song
Shaw considered Mrs. Warren's Profession his greatest achievement, and it's easy to see why. Written in 1893 but banned from being publicly performed until 1925, it crackles with kinetic energy from the first moments onward, and still feels unabashedly contemporary. Perhaps that is because many of the themes with which Shaw grappled continue to plague society today.
The titular profession is never actually named in the play, but Shaw makes sure that the audience knows what it represents. For Kitty Warren (Philadelphia favorite Mary Martello), her ability to earn money served as her only means of escape from life as a barmaid or factory laborer; it is what allowed her to become the woman who enters midway through act one in a flawlessly tailored gown, a long strand of pearls, and a hat that just toes the line of good taste. It is what has allowed her beloved daughter Vivie (Claire Inie-Richards) a first-rate education and a life of relative comfortalbeit far away from her mother, who leaves Vivie to be raised in England while she does her business on the continent.
Mrs. Warren and Vivie are cut from the same cloth, but it is obvious that the daughter wishes a different life for herself. Where Mrs. Warren is flashy and gregarious, Vivie is demure. Vivie's goal is to set herself up as an actuary in London and devote herself single-mindedly to the task of making money, eschewing leisure and luxury in favor of hard-won independence. This baffles Mrs. Warren and her social seta group of artists and aristocrats that include the bohemian architect Praed (David Bardeen) and the wealthy wastrel Sir George Crofts (Andrew Criss)as well as Frank Gardner (Daniel Fredrick), the country playboy intent on making Vivie his wife.
Martello and Inie-Richards are expert at capturing the complicated mother-daughter relationship that Shaw so sharply etched. Martello holds the audience rapt during Mrs. Warren's unapologetic and passionate act two monologue, in which she plainly explains that poor women have few options to improve their station in life. In the past, I've often found Vivie's transformation in this scenebowing to her mother's reserve, she becomes a doting daughter, calling her mother "stronger than all England"somewhat unbelievable. Yet witnessing Martello's spellbinding delivery, as well as Inie-Richards' genuinely expressed reaction, made me believe that Mrs. Warren had converted her hard-hearted daughter, at least for a time.
Inie-Richards manages to make Vivie stern but not strident, which is a feat with this difficult character. I've rarely seen the play's devastating final scene played to such a chilling effect. The supporting cast is equally fine, with Fredrick's Frank a perfect cad and Criss' Crofts the picture of sniveling, spiteful aristocracy. Bardeen plays Praed with heartbreaking pathos, and John Lopes manages to pull the role of Reverend GardnerFrank's puritanical father, who may harbor more secrets than one suspectsfirmly out of the realm of stock character.
Director Kathryn MacMillan and scenic designer Dirk Durossette make excellent use of the spatial limitations of St. Stephen's Theater, including a fabulous reveal as the scene changes from Mrs. Warren's luxurious country estate to Vivie's drab London office. MacMillan's fleet pacing keeps the production moving at a fast clip, yet never feeling rushed. Mrs. Warren's Profession has not been seen in Philadelphia for over twenty-five years, and we should be glad that it's back. It feels as contemporary as if it were written yesterday.
Lantern Theater Company's production of Mrs. Warren's Profession continues at St. Stephen's Theater (923 Ludlow Street) through Sunday, October 9, 2016. Tickets ($15-42) can be -purchased online at www.lanterntheater.org or by calling 215-829-0395.