Shock has worn off, but message will linger

Review: Deft performances by Lise Bruneau and Lois Smith put the heart into the timeless hard lessons Shaw wants us to learn from `Mrs. Warren's Profession.'

April 02, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"I fancy I shall take my mother very much by surprise one of these days," Vivie Warren says at the beginning of George Bernard Shaw's once-scandalous play, "Mrs. Warren's Profession."

But it is Mrs. Warren who takes her 20-something daughter by surprise in Shaw's assault on conventional mores, receiving a wonderfully incisive production under Irene Lewis' direction at Center Stage.

Just looking at Lise Bruneau's Vivie and Lois Smith's Mrs. Warren gives ample indication of the vast gulf separating this turn-of-the-century daughter and mother, who have lived most of their lives apart. Bruneau's Vivie is a no-nonsense young woman who surrounds herself with serious books and papers, even on holiday in the country. Only her frizzy dark hair seems out of control. Everything else about her is strictly business.

As her mother, on the other hand, Smith wears a perfectly coiffed wig, though it is dyed a shade of red not found in nature and topped with an enormous straw hat. Her daytime dress is violet satin, and when she speaks, there's a blowzy quality to her voice that can't disguise her barroom origins, even when she's presumably putting on airs.

Yet it is Shaw's genius, beautifully reflected in this production, that by the end of the play we discover how much these women have in common -- the mother, who made her fortune running a string of brothels, and the daughter, who was raised to be a lady in ignorance of her mother's line of work.

The two lengthy scenes between mother and daughter are the crux of the evening, with the shifts in power and emotions keenly conveyed by these fine actresses. They leave no doubt about the similarities between their characters: They're each hard workers with a strong business sense, following what they believe is the only path to better the lot of single women in their generation. And though this economic reality -- along with the hypocrisy of the era -- was very much Shaw's point, the two actresses bring so much spirit to their discourse, the production never lapses into didacticism.

But Bruneau and Smith also make it clear that these women could never live together. Their outlook on life is simply too different. Mrs. Warren may be tough, but she also has a deep sentimental streak, and by the end of the play Vivie has effectively purged herself of any remnant of sentimentality.

The mother-daughter conflict is complemented by a father-son pair -- Sean Pratt's rakish Frank Gardner, who's in love with Vivie, and George Bartenieff's Rev. Samuel Gardner, a reluctant man of the cloth, who was once as profligate as his son. The production's funniest scene is a bit of comic role-reversal in which outraged Frank bullies his hung-over father into behaving like a proper host.

Lewis' production also has a moment so scary, it makes your skin crawl. Mrs. Warren's business partner is a crude aristocrat, Sir George Crofts, played with an oily sense of menace by Jordan Charney. Crofts thinks he's going to marry Vivie, and blackmail is his idea of courtship. Attempting to win the defiant young woman by revealing her inadvertent complicity in her mother's business, Charney crouches over Bruneau's bent, tearful figure, itching to stroke her as if she were a dog whose spirit he's just broken.

Crofts' foil is a gentle artist and architect named Praed, a man whose cultured sensibilities and love of art and beauty also contrasts with Vivie's increasingly cold world view. Everyone loves Praed, and Laurence O'Dwyer's warm, sensitive portrayal makes it easy to see why.

The word "prostitution" is never mentioned in "Mrs. Warren's Profession," but designer Tony Straiges' set doesn't let you forget that it is at the heart of this play, which was initially banned in Britain. When you enter the theater, the entire back wall of the stage is a blown-up sepia photograph of a nude woman. At the start of the play, the bottom half of the photograph disappears, but the top hovers above all of the action, an omnipresent reminder of all that goes unsaid.

Today, of course, the oldest profession is hardly shocking subject matter. But regrettably, the type of hypocrisy Shaw was lambasting -- pseudo-morality that is only a veil for exploitation and suffering -- is timeless. And, of course, the rift between working mothers and daughters is as up-to-date as the feminist backlash that has arisen more than a century after Shaw penned this play.

All of these thoughts will be spinning in your brain after seeing Center Stage's stimulating production. But while Shaw's ideas will make your think, Bruneau and Smith's performances are what make you care.

`Mrs. Warren's Profession'

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays, 1 p.m. April 7-8. Through May 2

Tickets: $10-$40

Call: 410-332-0033

Pub Date: 4/02/99

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