An excess of delicacy has never been a problem with Mrs. Warren’s Profession. The titular occupation is never named in the play, but it’s made perfectly clear that Mrs. Warren is in what’s often called the oldest profession.
George Bernard Shaw’s 1894 play was banned in its day for stating outright that polite society is to blame for prostitution — not simply by turning a blind eye and availing itself, but more importantly by denying women better opportunities to make a living. It finally premiered on the sly in 1902 at a private club in London, but the ban wasn’t lifted until 1925. Given that its frankness got the play in trouble in the Victorian era, it’s interesting that when Susannah Martin’s generally strong Shotgun Players staging stumbles, it’s usually for lack of subtlety.
The Shotgun production has the trappings of the period: immaculate diction coached by Rebecca Castelli and tasteful costumes by Rebecca Redmond. Steve Decker’s multifaceted set rotates to reveal a rustic cottage exterior and interior, two very similar gardens, and later a small office that feels very Spade & Archer. Allen Willner’s yellowish lighting gives the proceedings the sepia tone of an old photograph.
Crisp performances keep things moving admirably through the play’s two hours and twenty minutes. Emily Jordan is terrific as Vivie Warren, a prim and businesslike college girl who’s about to become better acquainted with the mother she scarcely knows and the source of her own livelihood. By turns imperious, brash, and playful, there’s a commanding air to Jordan’s Vivie that makes her arguments sound convincing even when she’s being priggish and simplistic. In one particularly effective moment in Martin’s staging, Vivie steps into what appears to be a closet to compose herself as others talk about what is to be done, and she remains visible to the audience as she breaks down, paces, and stares into nothingness.
Nick Sholley is an engaging presence as the mild-mannered and earnest gentleman Mr. Praed, awkward in his excessive politeness as in so many Hugh Grant roles but delighted by Vivie’s vivacity. His claims of an artist’s life can be taken with a grain of salt, as there’s nothing improper about him aside from his tolerance of socially questionable people. Still, he’s likeable enough in the first scene with Vivie to make you wish Praed was more than an occasional presence in the play. Perhaps then we could have a nice comedy of manners and all would be well.
But Mrs. Warren must come, and with her comes the melodrama. Trish Mulholland’s Mrs. W could as easily have been a pirate as a lady of the evening. There’s a taste of crassness under her thin veneer of civility, but not of the appeal with which she made her living. At times a battleaxe fuming like Miss Piggy, occasionally grotesquely lewd, Mulholland’s Warren is a blunt instrument. What you see is what you get.
When she starts to tell of the hardscrabble beginnings that led her to a life of prostitution, not only do her minimal society airs fall away, but she takes on a cockney accent that would do Eliza Doolittle proud. Given that Vivie’s father is unknown even to her mother, maybe it’s time to give Henry Higgins a paternity test.
Among the many candidates are Mrs. Warren’s Sir George Crofts, played by John Mercer as a smirking and oily idler, and the status-obsessed Reverend Gardner, whom Rick T. Williams portrays simply as a sour, sputtering curmudgeon.
The latter possibility is troubling because among Vivie’s suitors is the reverend’s shiftless son Frank Gardner, in an animated performance by Joseph O’Malley, who enters whistling a bit of Peter and the Wolf, never mind that it was composed more than forty years after the 1893 play’s setting. Folksy, sly, juvenile, crafty, judgmental, petulant and combative, O’Malley’s Frank contains multitudes, and one of the problems of the productions is that his various parts don’t add up.
His flirtation with Mrs. Warren is played as seduction, his objection to her as riffraff — a convenient means to drive a wedge between mother and daughter — is played as moral outrage. Although unsubtle, both interpretations are certainly credible given the play’s subject matter. What’s not credible is the sudden leap from one to the other, when the far simpler turning point of Frank failing to win Mrs. Warren’s approval for his match with Vivie is given short shrift between the two extremes.
Vivie billing and cooing with Frank after he’s objected to her mother in the strongest terms is still less believable. It’s in the script, but the problem is one of tone. There’s nothing wrong with Martin’s impulse against Victorian stuffiness, but it causes trouble when it makes people’s behavior stop making sense.