by Hugh Hunter
At Stagecrafters director Barbara Mills creates an intense and charming revival of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” (1893) in which playwright George Bernard Shaw uses the life of his title character as a vehicle for attacking Victorian capitalism.
Born in the slums, Mrs. Warren’s one way out of poverty was to go into the “profession.” Later, she made a fortune managing European brothels. Now she wants to reconcile with Vivie, her 22-year-old daughter whom she sheltered and sent to Cambridge.
Faced with the problem of four scene changes, director Mills develops a spare and flexible stage. Dazzling costumes shine a light on the characters of those who live at the upper reaches of the capitalist food chain.
We see doddering Rev. Samuel Gardner (Mike Mogar) in clerical collar, a career roué who has resurrected himself as a minister. Dressed like a dandy, Mr. Praed (Anthony Marsala) embodies the turn-of-the-century aesthete.
Two other men are prominent as Vivie’s suitors. Christopher Applegate is perfect as wealthy Sir George Crofts. With his bowler hat and quiet deference, Crofts seems as harmless as your family dog. That is why you are so startled when Crofts decides to bare his teeth.
The other suitor is Frank Gardner (Brian Weiser), another dandy type who struts and lounges all over the stage. With his good looks and youth, Frank seems a better match for Vivie. But he is also a cynical layabout whose sole ambition is to sponge off the rich.
“Mrs. Warren’s Profession” holds up at the storytelling level. Revealed secrets flow naturally from character development – a step up from melodrama – as the play comes to focus on the mother-daughter relationship with key issues always in doubt.
Under the influence of new discoveries, Vivie starts to ask her mother hard questions. Bonnie Lay Grant has Mrs. Warren down to a tee. It is touching to see the mother’s hard-won gentility break down as she collapses back into the rough speech of her hardscrabble youth.
As Vivie, Julie Wise excels in her expressive physical presence. In the face of her mother’s spirited defense, you can literally see Vivie shutting down. When she does speak, it is to say things like “I should not have lived one life and believed in another. You are a conventional woman at heart.”
For sure, Shaw owes much to the polemical approach of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. But “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” is also gay and original, full of buffa characters and witty lines like this one from Mrs. Warren: “But Lord help the world if everybody took to doing the right thing.”
Though some of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” now seems dated, it still affects one profoundly (this production, anyway). You respect and sympathize with both Mrs. Warren and Vivie in their wonderful showdown scene, and director Mills is quite right not to take sides.
Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” will run through Feb. 17. Reservations available at 215-247-9913.