The revelations are falling like bombs in Profession of Mrs. Warren, George Bernard Shaw’s witty but deadly attack on conventional morality, now at the Washington Stage Guild for an all-too-brief run.
The play, banned in London and New York when it opened more than a century ago, is as shocking today as it was then. It’s also a reminder that Shaw’s work, while rarely performed, includes some of the best-written scenes in the canon.
One of the reasons for the rarity these days is that literary pieces, like this one, can be very demanding. The Stage Guild, which describes GBS as its “signature screenwriter”, is one of the few companies able to bring out all the nuances – humor and horror – of the screenplay.
The play opens with Vivie – the extremely confident daughter of Mrs Warren of the title – studying for a licensing exam in the garden of a cottage in Sussex. Played with tremendous verve by Rachel Felstein, Vivie has just graduated from Cambridge, with honors in mathematics (a rare feat for a woman in the 1890s); she aspires to become an actuary and study law.
In fact, she could be the poster child for the modern woman, capable of dictating her own destiny.
However, her mother, Kitty Warren, has different ideas. Lynn Steinmetz, a doyenne of the Washington scene, displays extraordinary range as the not-so-crazy mom who, after a long and mysterious absence abroad, descends on the cottage, determined to arrange her daughter’s wedding. with a gentleman of substance.
Vivie, of course, has no such interest. She considers marriage unnecessary because, being an educated woman, she can go her own way. Specifically, she is madly in love with Frank, the vicar’s son, a romantic hero struggling with gambling debts and an unwillingness to work.
Apart from the young lovers, who cuddle and coo as much as they can, all the characters start out as comic characters, straight out of Shakespeare or the central cast. Kitty Warren is the bawdy mistress, Sir George Crofts (Carl Randolph) is the rich but sinister suitor, Mr. Praed (Peter Boyer) is the nice friend. and Reverend Samuel (R. Scott Williams) is the pious priest.
But no one is quite what they seem, and little by little – thanks to the genius of Shaw and the talent of the director and the cast – everyone is revealed, unmasked, as someone completely different.
Kitty, by her own admission, is a vulgar. Forced by poverty into prostitution – the fate of many poor women at the time – she is proud to have succeeded in raising a daughter to become a lady. Uneducated, she is nonetheless a good and honest businesswoman.
Likewise, Sir George, whose role is villainous at the beginning, is more honest than the inept Frank, who is really looking for a rich woman who will support him and his gambling habits.
The comedy with outbursts of laughter of the beginning gradually turns into tragedy. Acts I and II literally set the stage for later discovery as the older men speculate who – of the three – might be the heroine’s missing father.
Vivie’s stubborn idealism exposes her as a first-rate hypocrite, and Kitty’s admission – that she loves her job – is a bow to reality. The two women, apparently opposites, are very similar. Both ultimately derive self-esteem, enjoyment and, yes, even the money of their work.
“Money is money,” says Sir George, in a line that might well sum up the play, as well as his own (and Shaw’s) belief that prostitution is just a business, no worse than another.
The sets, coordinated by Megan Holden, are lovingly detailed. Acts I and II are set in Vivie’s garden, where the traditional ivy-covered arbor and large privacy hedge contrast with piles of books, a rusty bicycle and folding lawn chairs that threaten to annihilate anyone who dares. sit there. .
Act III takes place in the rectory garden, where the books and bicycle have disappeared, replaced by religious artifacts and the exterior of a restored 13th-century church. In Act IV, the country gardens have disappeared. Instead, we’re in a paneled Chancery Lane office, dimly lit by a stained glass window. It is here that two tough-minded women will cut the cords that bind them together.
Sigrid Johanessdottir’s costumes are spectacular and highly evocative. They reflect the dandyism of Frank and Mr. Praed, the formality of Sir Crofts and the vicar’s church. Kitty’s costumes take the cake, with flamboyant frills at the start and widowgrass at the end.
This production is an important milestone for the company and the cast. Mrs. Warren’s occupation was produced by the Stage Guild in 1991, when the company was only five years old. Michael Rothhaar – then as now – directed, and Lynn Steinmetz, who was Vivie in the previous version, is now Kitty. Will Rothhaar, Michael’s son, is Frank; he and Rachel Felstein were childhood friends.
Duration: 2h35, including 2 intermissions.
Mrs. Warren’s occupation plays until March 27, 2022 presented by the Washington Stage Guild performing at the Undercroft Theater inside Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($50 to $60), call (202) 900-8788 or purchase in line.
COVID Safety: Masks are mandatory at all times in the theater; proof of vaccination must be presented at the door. The Stage Guild’s full health and safety policy is here.
Lynn Steinmetz (Kitty Warren)
Rachel Felstein (Vivie Warren)
Carl RandolphSir George Crofts
Scott Williams (Reverend Samuel Gardner)
Peter Boyer (Mr. Praed)
Will RothhaarFrank Gardner
Megan Holden—Scenic Design Coordinator
Laura Giannarelli, one of the founders of the Washington Stage Guild, is the assistant stage manager. (Other founders include Steinmetz, Bill Largess and Steven Carpenter.)