Cherry Jones and Sally Hawkins in Mrs. Warren's Profession at the Roundabout Theatre.
BOTTOM LINE: A wonderful production of one of Shaw's greatest plays with outstanding performances by Cherry Jones and Sally Hawkins.
Mrs. Warren's Profession, one of George Bernard Shaw's best and most controversial plays, centers on the relationship between Mrs. Kitty Warren (Cherry Jones), a high-class prostitute and madam, and her daughter Vivie (Sally Hawkins), who is shocked to learn that her mother has been engaged in the world's oldest profession – and that her own Cambridge education and upper-class life style has been financed by the fruits of those "immoral" activities. Mrs. Warren initially placates her daughter by explaining that it was her own impoverished childhood and lack of any other real opportunities which led her into "the life" and the two women temporarily reconcile – until Vivie learns that her mother is still engaged in her highly profitable business, at which time she no longer accepts her mother's explanation of abject poverty as an adequate rationalization for her behavior.
Shaw's 1893 play was written as a social commentary on the sad circumstances of women who worked in prostitution. In doing so, he ran afoul of the Lord Chamberlain, Britain's official theatre censor, who banned the play in England for a decade before it was finally allowed to be produced in a members-only club in London. In actuality, the play may not have been banned as much for its portrayal of prostitution as for its scarcely veiled attack on society's religious hypocrisy, conventional sexual mores, and exploitative capitalist economic system, all of which, in Shaw's opinion, were complicit in permitting (if not, indeed, actively encouraging) the institution of prostitution.
All of Shaw's plays, are so well written, their plot structures so intriguing, and their characters so well developed. Mrs. Warren's Profession is no different and this production is totally worth seeing: the acting is so superb, the direction so precise, the casting so on point, and the set design so stylish and stylized that the play is a total triumph.
Kitty Warren's character is so nuanced and multi-layered that a takes a truly accomplished actor to get it right, but Cherry Jones is more than up to the task. Both in word and manner, she manages to communicate the upper-class veneer her character has acquired as a high priced prostitute while retaining her lower-class origins, her need for control over her own life and her desire to extend that control to her daughter, as well as her love of money and what it will buy, while still evidencing the deepest love and concern for her daughter's welfare.
Sally Hawkins makes her Broadway debut in this play as Kitty Warren's daughter Vivie - and what a debut it is! Hawkins conveys a strength of purpose as Vivie that is more than a match for her mother's steel will. Hawkins manages to get across the message that Vivie, a "new age" woman in the very earliest days of the feminist movement, might well have followed in her mother's footsteps, had she lived a generation earlier and in her mother's original economic circumstances. And Jones similarly succeeds in communicating (without ever saying so) that Kitty might well have turned her business acumen to a more socially acceptable profession than prostitution, had she grown up in her daughter's time and with her daughter's social and financial advantages.
The other characters in the play also do splendidly in their respective roles. Edward Hibbert portrays the part of Mr. Praed, one of Kitty Warren's old friends (and perhaps one of her one time lovers or clients as well) with just the right degree of reserve and understatement. Mark Harelik beautifully plays the part of Sir George Crofts, Kitty's business partner and assuredly one of her early lovers/clients, who is desirous now of extending his sway to Vivie, with the cool, dispassionate calculation that Shaw finds so despicable. Michael Siberry does an excellent job in the role of Reverend Sam Gardner, another of Kitty's one-time lovers and just the sort of weak, class conscious, hypocritical churchman for whom Shaw exhibits such contempt. And Adam Driver plays the role of Frank Gardner, the Reverend ne'er-do-well son, with just the right touch of self-centered entitlement as to provide the perfect foil for Shaw to express his disdain for male dominated class stratified society.
The many inter-related themes in this play include inter-generational strife, conventional social mores, the capitalist economic system, class stratification, marital relationships, patriarchy, prostitution, possible incest and, not least of all, early examples of feminism - and the half dozen accomplished actors in the play deal with all of them brilliantly and play off one another as consummate professionals. Doug Hughes also deserves considerable credit for his pitch perfect direction. The exceptionally handsome sets designed by Scott Pask further enrich this theatre going experience.
(Mrs. Warren's Profession plays at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenues, through November 28, 2010. Performances are Tuesdays at 8pm, Wednesdays at 2pm and 8pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $67-117 and are available at roundabouttheatre.org or by calling 212.719.1300.)