Elizabeth Ashley in Mrs. Warren's Profession
(© Scott Suchman)
Elizabeth Ashley in Mrs. Warren's Profession
(© Scott Suchman)
The Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession will unsurprisingly satisfy the fans of leading lady Elizabeth Ashley, who expect to see a robust star vehicle showcasing the redoubtable grande dame. Just as happily, fans of Shaw will be equally satisfied by the usually unexplored nuances that director Keith Baxter develops in this more-than-a-century-old, yet still relevant, treatise on the limits society imposes on women.

In a wonderfully combustible performance, Ashley gives full-throated (if rather raspy) voice to Kitty Warren, one of Shaw's most vibrant characters. She is a fiercely independent and unapologetic madam of a chain of lucrative brothels, who belatedly tries to build a relationship with her now-grown, emotionally remote and principled daughter, Vivie (Amanda Quaid). Kitty has become a wealthy matron who could easily retire, except that her healthy appetites keep her engaged in a brand of commerce that her daughter has never known about, and which eventually becomes a source a friction between the two.

Punctuating her discourse with the occasional "HAH" -- cackled as exclamation -- Ashley revels in the role of a woman who enjoys breaking taboos. Yet Ashley also allows us to see that, deep down, Kitty has rather conventional aspirations and expectations of society.

However, it is with his treatment of Vivie that Baxter allows the play to grow beyond the usual sociological debate on the dearth of options available to women and how class structure perpetuates such limits. Baxter has apparently made only minor cuts to the occasionally pedantic dialogue -- but by allowing a degree of ambiguity after Vivie is shocked to find out exactly where the family money comes from, he makes her emotional arc the center of the play.

Vivie is often seen as emotionally sterile and perhaps overbearing in her rectitude as she rejects "the romance and beauty of life." But Quaid's Vivie has more complex layers than that. Determined to make her own way in the world, she remains no-nonsense, but is sensitive and vulnerable. While Vivie is outraged and devastated when she discovers her mother is still plying her nefarious trade, Quaid and Ashley find substantial grays between Shaw's blacks and whites which make Vivie's journey dramatically fascinating.

The supporting cast all turn in lively performances, with Ted van Griethuysen and David Sabin giving spicily comic turns as, respectively, Mr. Praed, an architect friend of Mrs. Warren, and Samuel Gardner, a befuddled country parson. Andrew Boyer chillingly makes some of Shaw's most barbed points as Sir George Crofts, Mrs. Warren's business partner, and Tony Roach adds likable dimension to Frank Gardner, the slightly callow young man who wants to marry Vivie.

Baxter further livens up the play by adding a trio of period English music hall songs, performed by a younger version of Mrs. Warren (Caitlin Diana Doyle) and a small but boisterous ensemble. They create period ambiance and underscore themes -- and one segment allows for a substantial scene change between Simon Higlett's gorgeously realistic and detailed circa 1905 sets and a London office.