Mrs. Warren's Profession
Finding Fog When Looking for Truth
By George Bernard Shaw
Shakespeare Theatre Company, Harmon Hall, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010, Seats D–20&21, left stalls
Directed by Keith Baxter
Maybe the Shakespeare Theater Company should consider changing its patron playwright to become the Shaw Theater Company. The way other companies can bring Shakespeare's Elizabethan language to immediate life (and STC frustratingly doesn't do well often enough), this troupe infused Shaw's Victorian dialogue with charming and appropriately emotional personality. Not that Shaw isn't a great writer of characters; he is, but so often those characters—or, as often, Shavian archetypes—tend to be overly witty and somewhat overbearing when they appear on stage.
But not in this production. Amanda Quaid as Vivie Warren, in particular, turned what seems on the page—and what I've seen on stage before—as a coldly cerebral, better-than-thou young woman into a multidimensional person who combines wit with charm, intelligence with girlishness, and morality with at least a little filial compassion. It's easy to see why all the men adore her.
Ted van Griethuysen developed the art-loving Mr. Praed as a man who is not so much ignorant of the real world but rather one who knows the real world and chooses to focus wholly on the good and beauteous in that world. Tony Roach's Frank Gardner was all silly charm—annoyingly so—but showed some real mettle when he faces off with Sir George Crofts and, later, upon learning the truth about Mrs. Warren when he finally laid out his manipulative cards, he somehow still managed to be respectable, if not heroic.
Entertainment is only half the equation in a Shaw play—and this one as written and as played has a lot of laughs. The other half is social truth. And Mrs. Warren's Profession, written more than 110 years ago, not only is just as relevant today as the day Shaw wrote it, but could easily be done in modern dress and be perfectly apt without a bit of modernizing the script. As the cast and director pointed out in the post-performance Q&A, imagine learning that your mother not only ran a series of brothels, but also was—and probably remains—a prostitute herself. That shock would be just as pointed today in America as it was in 19th century England. Imagine not just learning that your boyfriend could be your half brother but, even more bothersome, your mother has no idea if he is or is not.
And then there is the line spoken by Crofts on which so much of the plot's credibility hangs: When people know the truth, they pretend to not know it if it is too unpleasant to know, and that is how commerce gets done. And, in the United States today, that is also how politics gets done, too.
June 18, 2010