'Mrs. Warren's Profession' is alluring in Shakespeare Theatre Company production

AH, YOUTH: Caitlin Diana Doyle portrays a younger version of the title character in "Mrs. Warren's Profession" at Sidney Harman Hall.
AH, YOUTH: Caitlin Diana Doyle portrays a younger version of the title character in "Mrs. Warren's Profession" at Sidney Harman Hall. (Evy Mages For The Washington Post)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Why, it's good old reliable Ashley. As in, bless her heart, Elizabeth Ashley, the whiskey-voiced stage vet who here does pleasurable justice to one of George Bernard Shaw's more decadent creations, the fiercely unrepentant madam of Shakespeare Theatre Company's cannily assembled "Mrs. Warren's Profession."

Ashley's earthy magnanimity proves a good match for the play's pragmatic matriarch, a lowborn woman of the Victorian era who could find no avenue to material comfort other than the path that ran through the boudoir. It's a character that in Shaw's time represented the demeaning limits imposed on female aspiration -- and in ours is, perhaps, a symbol of the disdain we sometimes unfairly heap on the compromises of older generations lacking our advantages.

That contempt is embodied in Mrs. Warren's high-minded, Cambridge-trained daughter Vivie (Amanda Quaid), whom she's come to visit in the cozy Surrey home in which the older woman has set up the younger. As the carnal nature of Mrs. Warren's economic affairs is disclosed to the unsuspecting Vivie, their escalating standoff forms the dramatic core of the play. And even if the tensions in director Keith Baxter's production come across more sedately than is completely desirable, Ashley and Quaid manage to animate the moral and emotional shadings in their characters' quarrel.

Baxter, who in the company's renditions of Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan" and Sheridan's "The Rivals" exercised his passion for luxe stage surroundings, once again goes in for a luscious vista. His pastoral vision of 1905 revolves around a thatch-roofed cottage (by his splendid longtime set designer, Simon Higlett) and the sort of wild English garden through which Keira Knightley or Kate Winslet has wandered radiantly, in one dewy Jane Austen flick or other.

Could there be any doubt, in such an embracing environment, of a mother's love or her financial acumen? Into this oasis arrives a spectrum of Shavian types who reflect various pockets of 19th-century English society, and various kinds of hypocrisy: a local parish vicar (David Sabin) and his idle, flaxen-haired son (Tony Roach); an arty free spirit (Ted van Griethuysen); and Mrs. Warren and her boorish companion (Andrew Boyer), a moneyed bloke with a "Sir" in his title that might as well be short for surly.

What plays out are the consequences of Vivie's learning the vexing secret of her mother's vexing success. At first, hearing Mrs. Warren's tale of childhood deprivation, Vivie expresses sympathy for a mother who seemed to have few options. But her attitude shifts after she discovers that Mrs. Warren is still in the brothel business and has no intention of giving it up.

Vivie's change is brought on by the multiplying implications for her, both personally and professionally. Now that she is out of college and contemplating a career in a far more socially acceptable business, her mother's job is not merely an affront, but also a professional threat, a chokehold on the notion that a woman can move beyond the roles traditionally assigned to her. (Introduced, too, is the ticklish question of who might be her father.)

Some further exploration of the mother's trajectory has been invented for this production by Baxter, in a series of music-hall scenes that feature a younger incarnation of Mrs. Warren, played and prettily sung by Caitlin Diana Doyle. Mrs. Warren does indeed describe a brief interlude when she tried the stage, and the traditional and period numbers performed by this "burlesque artiste" and her quartet of "Cockney bruisers" provide a bit of wry commentary. (One of them is titled "She Was Poor, but She Was Honest.")

The songs, three in all, do give more of a through-story to Mrs. Warren: We learn how she might have avoided the ignominy of prostitution. Still, they exist somewhat uncertainly on the margins of the production, for this is not the life Ashley's Mrs. Warren speaks of with such defiance and lack of shame.

And in Ashley's hearty countenance, you are easily convinced that this Mrs. Warren is a woman at peace sleeping in coarser sheets. (She also looks swell in costume designer Robert Perdziola's handsome Edwardian frocks.) Although she doesn't have the vowels of working-class English life in her arsenal, Ashley otherwise carries off the difficult trick of seeming delicately rooted in rather common soil. The portrayal clearly conveys the sense of a mother expecting a daughter's absolute affection as the psychic income for all the investment she's made.

Quaid has an even tougher task, as Shaw's embodiment of womanhood's newfound potential. The temperature of the performance is a mite cool -- maybe that's an inevitable product of playing Mrs. Warren's polar opposite in everything but steely resolve. It proves increasingly effective, however, as the production builds to the director's lovely take on the play's final moments, when the cracks in Vivie's facade appear, thanks to a small, affecting gesture. Even a woman for a new century, it seems, can retain a soft spot for her old mom.

Mrs. Warren's Profession

by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Keith Baxter. Lighting, Peter West; composer and musical director, Kim D. Sherman; sound, Martin Desjardins; choreography, Karma Camp; voice and dialects, Ellen O'Brien. With Kenneth Cavett, Michael Grew, Ben Loving, David Joseph Regelmann. About 2 1/2 hours. Through July 11 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Visit or call 202-547-1122.

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