'Mrs. Warren's Profession' a witty poke at hypocrisy

October 27, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

George Bernard Shaw wrote "Mrs. Warren's Profession" not only to expose "underpaying, undervaluing, and overworking women," but also to expose the hypocrisy of conventional morality.

But no hypocrisy -- or disrespect -- is implied in saying that Theatre Hopkins does its conventional good job with this 1894 satire. This is due in large part to the fine performances of lead actresses Marietta Hedges and Carol Mason, under the restrained and insightful direction of Suzanne Pratt.

The table-turning premise of Shaw's play concerns two thoroughly modern 1890s women. Vivie Warren has been raised to be an upstanding, respectable lady. But the money that paid for her sterling upbringing came from her mother's disreputable career as a madam. What illuminates Theatre Hopkins' production is that the portrayals by Hedges and Mason stress how similar Vivie and her mother are. They are two generations of the same person.

Though Hedges' Vivie is as serious as Mason's Mrs. Warren is vivacious, the women share an ironclad determination. In the marvelous second-act scene in which she reveals her profession to her initially appalled daughter, Mrs. Warren says, "If there's one thing I hate in a woman, it's want of character." She need have no fear in that regard concerning Vivie.

These women do differ in one important respect, however. Society may have forced Mrs. Warren to take a questionable path to better herself, but now a far less shady future is available to her daughter.

From her ramrod bearing to her nearly no-nonsense manner, Hedges makes it clear that Vivie has inherited the work gene from her mother. And she has inherited it in its pure form -- work as an end in itself. If her mother has done the best she could in a hypocritical society, Vivie will take it one step further. She will build a wall of work that she believes will shield her from what Shaw saw as the inevitability of living off of corruption.

Besides the key female roles, much of the wit of this production derives from the depictions of the male characters. The openness that Vivie and her mother share is in direct opposition to the surreptitiousness of the men.

Flying in the face of Victorian (and even more recent) practice, Shaw defined these men in terms of their relationships to the women -- Mrs. Warren's business partner, her friend, her former lover and Vivie's beau. And, it is they who resort to euphemisms and speak in sly whispers on Theatre Hopkins' stage.

Furthermore, the production's other parent-child conflict -- skillfully conveyed by Bryan Cassidy and Kevin Daly -- forms a delightful contrast to the bond between Mrs. Warren and her daughter. Where Vivie takes some pride in her less-than-pure mother, Vivie's young suitor (Daly) is ashamed of his pastor father (Cassidy).

Initially banned in Britain as well as on these shores, "Mrs. Warren's Profession" may seem mild to modern audiences. The reason is not so much because we are no longer shocked by prostitution -- or even by the theme of incest, which is also hinted at in the play -- but because in these enlightened times, profiting from corruption has become virtually a given. Whether that constitutes a decline in hypocrisy or a rise in cynicism, I doubt it is the better good Shaw hoped candor might engender.

THEATER REVIEW

"Mrs. Warren's Profession"

Where: Theatre Hopkins, Merrick Barn, Johns Hopkins University

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:15 p.m. Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13. Through Nov. 20

Tickets: $10 and $12

Call: (410) 516-7159

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