The most difficult aspect of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” is being able to get in a place intellectually to appreciate its historical impact. Like when viewing a classic of the silent screen and framing your mindset of a world emerging fresh from the Nickelodeon parlors and far removed from CGI and 3-D.
Among the earliest of Shaw’s dramatic efforts, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” was rejected by a possible producer in 1895 as “unfit for women’s ears.” In 1894 Britain’s official censor of theatres banned it from being performed before the public. When the play opened in New York in 1905, it was closed by the civic authorities after the first night and the mayor had the entire cast and crew charged with public indecency.
In 1929 the ban in Britain was lifted and the play had its first British staging 32 years after Shaw first put pen to paper. Shaw’s opinion about the production was succinct, “Too late.”
Well it was true in 1929, and it may be true today.
It is as hard to fathom today what all the fuss about “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” was over as it is to understand why Dublin audiences at the turn of the century rioted over the premiere of “Playboy of the Western World”, and why New Yorkers back in the 1990’s thought “Rent” was a Tony award winning musical. (oops, did I say that?)
In a nutshell, a very brief nutshell, Mrs. Warren (Anne Gee Byrd), a vivacious, mature woman of the world, visits her serious, ambitious daughter Vivie (Linda Park), who styles herself as a “modern woman” intent on living life by her own standards and not settling to be merely some man’s prized catch.
Pressuring her mother to disclose the source of her financial independence, Vivie is shocked to learn of her mother’s childhood, mired in poverty, and that her “profession”, the only one opened to an unwed mother, was the management of certain “houses” scattered across the continents where she tended her “girls.”
Vivie quickly comes to grip with this startling revelation, regarding it as the cross her mother bore in a society which offered no alterative to women of the lower classes. The daughter looks upon her mother with newborn admiration for having endured such an ordeal for her sake.
But when it is disclosed that Mrs. Warren’s profession is not a thing of the past, but is still a going concern no longer from necessity but purely in pursuit of profits, Vivie denounces her mother and breaks all ties with her, seemingly forever.
Another gauge of the time is that nowhere in this “amoral” work will you find the word “prostitute’ spoken on stage. Nor “harlot”, “whore”, “whoremonging”, “brothel”, “bordello”, “Shinjuku”, “sink of iniquity”, “frail sister”, “floozy”, or even “fallen woman”.
The only time the subject is broached on stage is when it is scribbled on a slip of paper, as it would shame the lips to speak of it, and passed about invoking expressions of muted indignation from its readers.
Frankly, I’ve never found much merit in this piece. For instance, in a subplot which has little bearing on the play whatsoever, Vivie pressures her mother to reveal her father’s identity. When Mrs. Warren yields his name and Vivie learns he is someone near at hand, and that the young man she has been involved with, is in fact her half brother, that’s the end of the matter with no further comment given over to the topic or its ramifications.
Now I’ve sat through productions of this play that seemed like karmic payback for my living the evil I have, but fortunately that’s not the case this time. If the level of talent found in the Antaeus Company was any higher it would cause nose bleeds, and they succeed in breathing life into what is essentially a museum piece.
Arye Gross radiates as the endearing Mr. Praed, with Robert Machray nearly matching his luminosity as the globular Reverend Gardner. Rebecca Mozo and Linda Park as Mrs. Warren and her daughter are strong and believable giving more to their roles than, for my money, the roles bring to the stage.
Robin Larson’s direction keeps the play’s ponderous language moving at a pace that infuses it with a vitality that entices the audience to follow along.
Despite the grousing of this critic, I still advise anyone with a passion for theatre or an interest in the evolution of late 19th century feminism to catch this solid, craftsman-like and quite enjoyable staging of a play which is seldom produced and rarely produced this well.
Mrs. Warren’s Profession
THE ANTAEUS COMPANY
5112 Lankershim Blvd.
North Hollywood CA, 91601
Performances: March 14-April 21:
Thursdays @ 8 pm: April 4, 11, 18
Fridays @ 8 pm: April 5, 12, 19
Saturdays @ 2 pm: April 6, 13, 20
Saturdays @ 8 pm: April 6, 13, 20
Sundays @ 2 pm: April 7, 14, 21
Thursdays and Fridays: $30
Saturdays and Sundays: $34
$7 in the lot at 5125 Lankershim Blvd. (west side of the street), just south of Magnolia.