Arts & Events

Theater Review: Mrs. Warren's Profession at CalShakes

by Ken Bullock
Monday July 19, 2010 - 09:43:00 AM

"Lord help the world if everybody took to doing the right thing!" Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren, who cuts the figure of a self-made woman in a man's world, delivers that shot at her prudish, utilitarian daughter Vivie near the close of Mrs. Warren's Profession, now onstage at CalShakes, over the hill in Orinda. But the implications of what she says in high dudgeon ricochet ironically around the Bruns Amphitheatre. 

Shaw's late Victorian play about a young woman discovering how her absentee mother made a living, all the years she was growing up and sent to choice schools, was kept off the stage for years. There's nothing particularly shocking anymore about its content; it's the form of the argument—just that, argument, with satire to give it edge—that's so cogent to the present moment, when the values and ethics of economics and class are once more a subject of even casual conversation. 

Vivie's confrontations with her mother describe the reverse of the usual, melodramatic curve. When they first lock horns, the sheltered daughter starts in with resentment and high-handed anger, only to end in admiration of what seems to be the figure of a brave lady who stood alone, taking the low road that perversely was the high. No knee-jerk moral judgment prevails here... 

It's only later the real moral situation becomes clear: not what Mrs. Warren is in herself, but the spider's web of associations that is her element. As William Blake put it in The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, "The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship."  

(Blake also put it, in his "Proverbs of Hell," "Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion." Under a picture of Nebuchadnezzar crawling on all fours in the desert, he inscribed, "One Law for the Lion & the Ox is Oppression.") 

Shaw takes up the visionary social psychology of Blake's working-class poetic (and Biblical) rhetoric and applies it, stiffened with the realism of the novelists, which his idol Ibsen volatilized onstage, to the "friendly" associations and social codes—rigid, seemingly eased by the double standard—of a century later. 

The local reverend, pretending a high moral tone, turns out to be an old customer of Mme. Warren. His wastrel son Frank, on whom the reverend endeavors to ride shotgun, is Vivie's suitor—but immediately flirts rather daringly with her mother, explaining, “There’s a freemasonry among the thoroughly immoral!" Solicitous Mr.Praed, old friend—emphatically not customer—of Mama, hopes Vivie will escape with him—Platonically, of course—into the Platonic world of Art, of Italian tours, what a bank account offers to the disenchanted. Crofts, old client and business partner, a slumming member of the gentry, offers the daughter a deal she obviously won't be able to refuse. 

There's much buying and selling—or at least offers, some way above market price. The saddest—and most explosive, finally—is the lifelong attempt by Mrs. Warren to buy a respectable daughter and her devotion. 

Vivie chooses a joyless pragmatism, an above-board commercial career for her life. 

It's a stand-off of exhaustion. Courage displayed, with no one finally backing down—or winning. As I put it here, April 1, 2008, in a review of Shotgun Players' excellent production of Mrs. Warren, directed by Susannah Martin, it's not Nora fleeing her dollhouse, but a calculated break, one which displays all the contradictions, even in Vivie's own lonely position. 

There's good, thoughtful reflection on these themes, in both historical and contemporary aspects, mostly—rightly so—on the ongoing exploitation of women, not economic exploitation and co-option overall, by dramaturg Laura Hope and Philippa Kelly, resident dramaturg, as well as assistant director Robert Estes, in the CalShakes' program. 

The cast assembled for the show is a good one, Stacy Ross in particular a fine choice for Mrs Warren herself, often depicted matronly, but here with vigorous energy, unafraid of who she is or her own vulgarity. 

The men comport themselves well, too, but were maybe mis-assigned: Ron Gnapp's serviceable as Rev. Gardner, playing off his irritable, hypocritical side, but could have been a better Crofts—with a touch more menace—than the also-serviceable Andy Murray, who in turn may have been a sweet Praed, "old Praddy." Dan Hiatt comes off well as Praed, accenting the gentle bumbler, the compromiser, out of place in the real world—though perhaps the chagrin and impotence of the Reverend would have worn better with his comic abilities ... 

Sadly, Timothy Near's direction undermines it all, dolling it up with overwrought business that breaks down the rhythm of the dialogue and its satirical—and genuinely humorous—show of contradiction in both characters and situation. The skilled players are never able to settle down to business—and business with Shaw is words, the action of words: how they reveal through dialogue the characters in contradiction, which in turn discloses a social situation ... one, in this case, that has never let up in its unspoken brutality, Victorian trappings or the latest fashions and news from Wall Street. 

The most regrettable thing of all is the insipid characterization of Vivie that Anna Bullard, a worthy actor, has been saddled with, stamping her foot like the "little missy" Crofts mockingly calls her, gagging at every revelation—this the brave young woman who makes a hard choice to go it alone, at a time when conventional wisdom—and hindsight—declared a woman couldn't. The prudishness her mother accuses her of is real enough, but of a different—and almost tragic—order. Such a little female milquetoast as we see at Cal Shakes wouldn't be worth considering: lacking contradictions, only capable of inanity—or inanition.