In retrospect, the artistic worth and emotional impact of George Bernard Shaw’s classic late-Victorian era play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, has been overshadowed by the controversy and history of censure and suppression that attaches to it. This is a shame, for while Shaw’s courageous (at the time) but rather plain-spoken justification of sex work as an economic necessity for women with few other alternatives for earning a living continues to have relevance, the real power of the play resides in its wrenching examination of a mother and daughter’s mutual estrangement. That is the element of the drama that makes this play truly timeless.
It’s not necessarily clear that Melanie Spewock, who adapted and somewhat condensed Shaw’s play, was attempting to foreground this aspect of the drama; it could be, rather, that there was likely not a single member of the audience on the night I saw the Promethean Theatre Ensemble production who would disagree with Shaw’s thesis that prostitution is usually not a moral failing but rather an economic necessity, nor with the theatre’s own post-show advocacy on behalf of the victims of sexual exploitation. Thus, what really resonates in this production is the painful series of events during which the titular Mrs. Kitty Warren (Elaine Carlson), once a prostitute and now a madam, is at first accepted and then firmly rejected by her proud, prickly, principled and priggish daughter, Vivie (Tracey Greenwood), who has recently graduated from Cambridge University.
Regardless of Spewock’s intentions, and those of director Michael D. Graham, this painful parent and child dynamic is powerfully affecting. It is reminiscent, in some ways, of Philip Roth’s great American novel (and I use this phrase advisedly) American Pastoral, also a story about how an excessively dogmatic daughter harshly renounces a parent on principle, and, like Mrs. Warren’s Profession, at its heart a sort of filial horror story.
In the case of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, it is of note that Vivie, who barely knew her mother and does not know her father at all at the time of the play’s opening moments, does not reject her mother on the basis that she once was a prostitute, but rather because she later comes to understand that her mother continues to work as a madam – employing, or perhaps, in modern parlance, exploiting – other young women, even after she has made a fortune and economic necessity no longer is an issue. It’s hard to disagree with the daughter’s reaction – she, in effect, disowns her own mother – given that the issue no longer is prostitution itself, but rather exploitation and greed, even as the degree of that reaction seems disturbingly rigid and extreme.
These subtleties are carried off superbly by Tracey Greenwood in particular; in addition to the difficult interchanges with her mother, she also has a charming and kittenish relationship with an impecunious and devil-may-care suitor. Her performance is as close to perfect as one can imagine for a role as ambiguous and emotionally demanding as this one; on stage almost continuously, she never strikes a false note. Elaine Carlson is also excellent, although from time to time her speech is a bit more mannered that it needs to be.
There are four male roles in the cast as well – Chris Woolsey as Vivie’s suitor (there is a twist to their relationship that those seeing this play for the first time will assuredly not anticipate); Ted Hoerl as the suitor’s father; Ross Frawley as a friend whom, I imagine, was Shaw’s conception of what a decent man should be; and Jared Dennis – who has a surprising relationship with Kitty Warren — as Shaw’s idea, conversely, of what a man should not be, which is to say an exploiter, an opportunist and a cynic.
Spewock, Graham, and the entire Promethean Ensemble team have done Shaw proud. This is nothing less than a superb production and, by that, I don’t mean a superb production given the inherent limitations and minuscule budget of a storefront theatre. It is first-rate, period. If you’ve never seen Mrs. Warren’s Profession, or assume that it is only a somewhat-dated “problem” play that addresses its issues in the couched and careful language of its time, you owe it to yourself to see this powerful and enduring drama at one of Chicago’s truly excellent small theatre companies.
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