Monday, September 6, 2010

Mrs. Warren's Secret Is Out of the Bag

Remember those old movies—the ones in which Olivia de Havilland or Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck played a mother who gives up everything for her child? Generally these characters had been born on the wrong side of the tracks yet were determined that their own child would grow up “respectable,” with a “proper education” and social standing. Typically, these women’s sacrifices would be unappreciated, and their offspring would wind up being so respectable that they would ultimately turn their backs on their uncouth moms.

These films make a good lens through which to watch George Bernard Shaw’s play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, a revival of which is now in preview at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre.

One of Shaw’s early plays (1893), Mrs. Warren’s Profession brings out two of the playwright’s favorite themes: the plight of women who had to rely on men for their financial support, and the evils of capitalism.

Like filmdom’s sacrificing mothers, Kitty Warren (Cherry Jones) has made sure that her daughter Vivie (Sally Hawkins in her Broadway debut) has had every advantage back home in England, while she, Kitty, has generally stayed away, ostensibly leading the glamorous life in the great cities of Europe.

The play opens as Vivie and Mum are about to have one of their rare reunions, and it doesn’t take long for Vivie to realize that her mother's profession is the world’s oldest one.

Like the children in those old movies, Vivie is put off by the revelation, but Shaw has a way of putting his own twist to things. He has written a deeply touching scene at the end of Act I, in which Vivie comes to understand the dire straits that led her mother into the profession as a young woman. This is the story behind the story that you never heard from Bette Davis’s lips, and it is a compelling one. This scene is beautifully played out by Ms. Jones and Ms. Hawkins, alone on the too-huge stage of the American Airlines Theatre. It’s a powerful moment, one that is likely to leave the audience with moist eyes.

Unfortunately, Act I is followed by Act II, which sadly unravels the good feelings between the two women. Vivie learns far more about her mother’s life than she would have wanted to know, while Shaw gets to inveigh against the greed-inducing influence of capitalism.

With Shaw, the women’s roles are generally more complex and well-developed than those of the male characters, and that is certainly true with Mrs. Warren’s Profession.

The men in the play are all just types: the cynical businessman, Sir George Crofts (Mark Harelik); the effete family friend Mr. Praed (Edward Hibbert); the young and charming ne’er-do-well, Frank Gardener (Adam Driver); and Frank's father, Reverend Samuel Gardner (Michael Siberry), the crotchety old preacher-with-his-own-little-secret. Young Frank and Sir George, who is Kitty Warren’s business partner, are vying for Vivie’s hand in marriage. The former wants to marry her for her mother’s money; the latter wants to buy her outright. The goings-on take place under the direction of Doug Hughes, who has given us a steadfast if unexciting production. The sets, quite elaborate for a Roundabout production, were designed by Scott Pask, who has won a number of Tonys and other awards for his set work. Credit Pask for making the best possible use of the cavernous stage.

The performances by the women, Cherry Jones and Sally Hawkins, are the production’s real strengths, and—as this was an early preview that I saw—they are likely to get better over time. Of the men, I’d like to give a nod to Adam Driver, who has been proving himself to be quite a strong and interesting young actor in such diverse recent Off Broadway productions as The Forest at the Classic Stage Company and Little Doc at the Rattlestick. Keep an eye out for Mr. Driver; his career is definitely on the ascendant.

As for Mrs. Warren’s Profession, I would recommend seeing it if you are interested in Shaw and haven’t seen the play before. There is enough wit and intelligence in the writing itself to make the visit worthwhile.

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