Shock faded, but message did not Review: Olney Theatre shows that dated "Mrs. Warren's Profession" can resonate today.

July 30, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

George Bernard Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Profession" doesn't shock anymore -- and that's the most shocking thing of all.

Shaw dubbed "Mrs. Warren's Profession" one of his "plays unpleasant," but as Olney Theatre Center's solid production proves, far from being unpleasant, it now seems mild -- even quaint.

At the turn of the century, when Shaw wrote this play about the world's oldest profession, the censors went wild. With the exception of a private performance in 1902, the play wasn't produced in London until 1925. A 1905 New York production was promptly shut down.

Granted, Shaw wasn't condemning prostitution. He was condemning something larger and more insidious -- a social system in which prostitution was one of the only ways a woman could escape dire poverty. And with equal vehemence, he was condemning the hypocrisy that publicly denounced this situation and privately perpetuated it.

As Richard Bauer's worldly Sir George Crofts lectures Mrs. Warren's daughter, Vivie: "If you're going to pick and choose your acquaintances on moral principles, you'd better clear out of this country, unless you want to cut yourself out of all decent society." A typical Shavian epigram, Croft's wisecrack expresses a sentiment all too familiar a century later, particularly to a Washington-area audience.

So, this play unpleasant turns out to be a pleasant period piece. Director John Going's production feels as old-fashioned as Mary Ann Powell's costume designs -- from the flashy lavender satin worn by Halo Wines' bold Mrs. Warren to the tailored garb of Katherine Leask's business-like Vivie.

Indeed, with the shock value depleted, the weight of the play falls on the mother-daughter relationship, effectively conveyed by Wines and especially Leask, who emphasize, first, the differences, and eventually the similarities, between these women.

In her opening scene, Leask's no-nonsense Vivie repairs a bicycle while carrying on a brisk, self-assured conversation. This is a young woman who can take care of herself. Of course, her mother is also a woman who can take care of herself, although she has hidden the nature of her work from her daughter, whom she has kept sheltered in boarding schools.

This subterfuge is what finally causes the breach between outgoing Mrs. Warren and restrained Vivie -- just when they have discovered the strong streak of self-reliance they have in common. Practical Vivie accepts that her mother did what she had to do to survive, though she castigates her for continuing it now that her circumstances are no longer dire.

The play's male characters are thinner, but Vivie and her mother are ably supported by not only Bauer's crass George Crofts, but also by the parallel generation gap represented by Vivie's beau, played by Bob Kirsch as a happy-go-lucky slacker, and his vTC father, a proper but bumbling clergyman, played by Tom Carson.

James Wolk's set design is one of Olney's more ambitious. The back wall representing the British countryside cantilevers up when the action moves to Vivie's musty office, as if she has wiped away, in one bold stroke, the comfortable life of the gentry.

What this production can't wipe away is the acceptance of the disparity between appearances and reality that appalled Vivie and seems merely ho-hum in these dangerously blase modern times.

Olney's production does strike one eerily up-to-date note, however. Although Shaw's stage directions call for Vivie to be "joyous" and "buoyant" at the end, as Leask plays her, Vivie chooses to retreat into the business world instead of rejoicing in her independence and confronting the larger world outside. In other words, at Olney, Shaw's vital young woman turns into an ostrich. In the 1990s, she'd find lots of company.

'Profession'

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Route 108, Olney

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. Sundays, matinees at 2: 30 p.m. Sundays and selected Saturdays and 2 p.m. selected Thursdays. Through Aug. 25

Tickets: $23-$28

Call: (301) 924-3400

Pub Date: 7/30/96

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