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Mrs. Warren’s Profession

Too little, too late

By Bence Olveczky

Written by George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Michael Bloom

With Mariette Hartley, Kate Goehring, Jared Reed, J. Michael Flynn, Jordan Charney, Munson Hicks

At the Huntington Theatre through Oct. 10

Tickets $10-$52

Call (617) 266-0800 for more information

Americans have always had a soft spot for George Bernard Shaw and the eminently quotable Nobel laureate knew as much. “They adore me and will go on adoring me until I say something nice about them,” he once uttered. I fear he never did endorse anything American, and had he seen Huntington Theatre’s dull and disappointing production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession -- one of his best plays -- he would have kept his stance even more religiously.

Penned in 1893 in a predominantly puritan Britain, Shaw’s play examines the social and economic roots of a woman’s “immoral” behavior. It centers around Mrs. Warren, a businesslike woman, who cultivates the world’s oldest profession with utmost secrecy. Rather than becoming a poor factory worker in newly industrialized England, she manages to escape her low class and join the social elite. She is even able to send her illegitimate daughter to study at Cambridge University.

When the play starts, Vivie Warren -- self-confident, high-spirited, and oblivious of her mother’s profession -- has just returned home from Cambridge with high honors. She is pondering her future while also trying to find a good match among the string of suitors that surround her. Curious and critical, Vivie soon learns about her mother’s past, and as the truth sinks in, her attitude and outlook on life change dramatically. She distances herself from her mother, and chooses to be “permanently single and permanently unromantic.”

The play was banned in Britain for more than 30 years due to its failure to condemn Mrs. Warren and her profession. Today, its shock value is all gone, yet the play has lost none of its importance. Great plays age well, and Mrs. Warren’s Profession raises issues and questions that are as pertinent today as they were a hundred years ago: Can economic and social factors foster immoral people? And if so, does society have the right to reject them? And more specifically: has Vivie the right to condemn her own mother? Is wealth and social status more important than personal integrity? And what exactly does “personal integrity” mean? While remaining critical of capitalism and moral hypocrisy throughout the play, Shaw provides no clear-cut answers to these questions, leaving us to ponder their relevance long after the play has finished.

Unfortunately, director Michael Bloom doesn’t match Shaw’s genius, and he fails to provide this rich and multi-layered play with the invigorating staging it so clearly deserves. Bloom decided not to make a naturalistic production out of Shaw’s naturalistic play, but having discarded the obvious and traditional interpretation, he has failed to replace it with anything coherent or authentic. As a result, the Huntington production is a messy mix of half-baked ideas. Take Russell Parkman’s fairytale-like stage design: with its two-dimensional cutouts of trees and houses and its wallpaper backdrop radiating fake pastoral idyll, the set would be right on target if Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, and Tigger were to emerge on stage. But they aren’t. Rather, this strange and kitschy wonderland is inhabited by Shaw’s characters in period costumes, causing a bizarre dissonance.

Even the usually competent Huntington actors give inconsistent and mannered performances. Mariette Hartley’s painstaking attempts at mastering the cockney accent sadly overshadow her otherwise decent performance as Mrs. Warren. Thankfully, Kate Goehring’s Vivie is much smoother and her portrayal of a happy and carefree young girl’s transformation into a serious and independent career woman is both believable and gripping.

The rest of the cast is made up of Vivie’s suitors and Mrs. Warren’s “friends” -- all representatives of the male stereotypes that the feminist Shaw loved to critique and ridicule. Munson Hicks plays Reverend Samuel Gardner, a clergyman with a past, and Jordan Charney portrays the cynical capitalist Sir George Crofts. But their exaggerated performances brush over much of the sarcasm and dry wit implicit in the play. Jared Reed tries to improve on this by playing Frank, Vivie’s boyfriend, in true John Cleese style, but the result is uneven at best.

The production is not without its strengths: somewhat redeeming is the play’s last scene, in which Mrs. Warren is trying to reconcile with her daughter. Played out in Vivie’s new office, the scene brings to life the mother-daughter conflict in all its complexity. But this last heartfelt moment only makes the shortcomings of the previous hour and a half more obvious and regrettable.

In the end, the evening is a testimony to missed opportunities. This could have been a good production of a great play. Now your best bet is to read the play. Satisfaction guaranteed.