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Mrs. Warren's Profession

In the current Irish Repertory Theatre production, George Bernard Shaw's play is as welcome a tonic as it was to its first audiences. logo
Dana Ivey in Mrs. Warren's Profession
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
When George Bernard Shaw died in 1950 at 94, a production of the literary giant's Mrs. Warren's Profession was on view in Manhattan. Harold Clurman, wearing his critic's cap, seized the chance to write an appreciation of Shaw and the scandalous 1893 play -- as well as of a production of Arms and the Man that was also on the boards at the time. "Like most of his other plays," Clurman commented, "[these Shaw works are] really an attempt to illustrate the fact that realistic common sense and down-to-earth practicality in all walks of life will provide a truer basis for a genuine humanism than all the high-flown humanism and glamorous poetics of the past did."

Well, Mrs. Warren's Profession is back, and Shaw's brand of common sense remains refreshingly convincing. It's as welcome a tonic now as it was to its first audiences. There is still great delight to be had when the eponymous character explains to her fully emancipated daughter how her woman's limited circumstances led her to a well-rewarded career as a madam. Shaw's comedy, originally presented in a private club because it was considered so risqué, is also relevant for other reasons. When righteous offspring Vivie rejects an offer of marriage from her mother's aristocratic business partner, Sir George Crofts, she's airing contemporary concerns in being repelled by the happy acceptance of immorality among capitalism's powerful. Her attitude is so up-to-date that the plucky young woman could be brushing off the likes of, for example, an amorous Kenneth Lay.

Perhaps Shaw's greatest contribution to dramatic literature is his ability to blend a relentless examination of morality's complexities with winking wit and tragi-comic situations. Sometimes men express the dramatist's assessment of ethical behavior, as in Pygmalion, when Alfred P. Doolittle expounds on middle-class values. Sometimes it's the women who are Shaw's articulate mouthpieces, as in Mrs. Warren's Profession. In the latter play, both mother and daughter are examples of straight thinking; but Mrs. Warren retains the edge, since Vivie's inflexible moral code eventually puts her at odds with a more persuasive understanding of human forgiveness. When Vivie resolutely plants her feet on the side of unwavering thought, it's as if Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet had wandered into the 21st century, where young women who've benefited from the most recent feminist movement are insufficiently mindful of what helped get them where they are. (Upbraiding Vivie for her refusal to forgive what she sees as continuing transgression, Mrs. Warren even mentions her daughters "pride and prejudices.")

Shaw's work is also notable for the demands it places on actors. Those who perform these plays must, of couse, express themselves clearly and to the point, but there's much more to it than that; they must love speaking Shaw's English without hinting at their joy in doing so. They must understand Shaw's brilliant mind, because they are its envoys. Above all, they must realize that while they are disseminating the master's ideas, they're also portraying individuals with familiar quirks and idiosyncrasies. Today's glad tidings are that the Irish Repertory Theatre's Charlotte Moore has rounded up a first-rate group of Shavians for her revival of Mrs. Warren's Profession, and has directed them with her own Shavian aplomb. They're a impressive troupe, led by Dana Ivey and dressed in mutton sleeves and tasteful cravats by David Toser.

Ivey is always spot-on, and her take on Mrs. Warren is every bit as immaculate as her very Shavian outing a few years back in the Roundabout's Major Barbara. (She also has productions of Shaw's Heartbreak House and Misalliance to her credit.) This time, the actress is down-scale as she deliberately assumes and drops the lower-class accent with which the character was born. (Stephen Gabis, the dialect coach, has done his job well.) Putting flinty conviction in such pointed remarks as "The hypocrisy of the world makes me sick," Ivey is Shaw's ideal pitchwoman.

Sam Tsoutsouvas is commanding as the mercenary Sir George Crofts, on whom the author carefully conferred at least one or two saving graces. David Staller gives a Chekhovian twist to the romantic Mr. Praed; it's an unmitigated pleasure to watch and listen as this Irish Rep stalwart make Praed's humble arguments for art. Kevin Collins as the self-aware wastrel Frank Gardner, whose plans to marry Vivie meet unforeseen obstacles, uses his silver tongue to effectively convey the young man's conflicting impulses. As Gardner's father, a clergyman with a less than strait-laced past, Kenneth Garner sputters and fulminates commendably.

The production's revelation is Laura Odeh, who hasn't previously done enough work in Manhattan to prepare anyone for her taking charge of Vivie in the same way that this no-nonsense character takes charge of those eddying around her. First spotted working in Dan Kuchar's appealingly economical notion of a cottage front yard, Odeh's Vivie is the realization of a young woman whose direct glance and firm handshake confound and enthrall the men who meet her. Her mere utterance of the words "I'd rather not" has the authoritative ring to make this production worth savoring. This is the very best of Shaw, very well done indeed.

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