Dave and I saw Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession Thursday night at CalShakes. The production is really good. Stacy Ross is terrific as Mrs. Warren, Anna Bullard holds her own very well as her daughter Vivie. Dan Hiatt is very endearing as Praed. The whole ensemble is delightful — the direction, the pointedly ironic set (pointed and ironic both literally and figuratively), the supporting roles, the colorful costumes.
It’s still Mrs. Warren’s Profession, though. It was Shaw’s second play and it has always seemed to me with this play that he hadn’t yet figured out how to make his lecture-hall points and tell a good story at the same time. There are too many times where the lectures cause the story to stop in its tracks for too long. Mrs. Warren seems to me to be a well-drawn character, but the same isn’t true of Vivie, who often seems to me to be who she is, and to do what she does, not so much because she’s a woman in a story as because she’s a symbol in the equation Shaw wanted to construct to describe the world as he saw it.
Still, this production made the play work better for me than it’s ever worked before, and I think it’s mostly because of the approach taken toward Vivie. A reviewer of this production harshly criticized the way Vivie is presented in this production, saying that it wasn’t worthy of Shaw’s character,
… the brave young woman who makes a hard choice to go it alone, at a time when conventional wisdom — and hindsight — declared a woman couldn’t.
Well, that’s one of my big problems with the play, right there: By the end of the play I don’t think Vivie is brave. I think she makes the easy, selfish, heartless, and ultimately cowardly choice, choosing to pretend to “go it alone”, when the really brave thing to do would be to admit that she knows she is only equipped to do well in the world because of the countless advantages that she’s received from her mother. But she doesn’t want to have to acknowledge them or admit any gratitude for them, because that would require her to give up her black-and-white, this-is-good-and-that-is-evil view of the world.
I understand that Shaw makes her that way because she’s his representative for the privileged world’s conventional attitude toward prostitution, loudly condemning it and staying aloof from it while in a state of carefully preserved denial about all the ways in which the world quietly profits by it. But that’s not a living character, that’s an allegorical statue. The few productions I’ve seen have tried to present Vivie in a positive light, her and Mrs. Warren as equally strong-willed women who have opposite and incompatible, but equally valid, points of view. It’s always managed to make the play about as compelling to me as a problem in long division.
What I’d really like to see is for Vivie to struggle her way toward some new understanding and acceptance and wisdom about her situation and her mother — not to give us the usual conventional, sentimental attitude about motherhood and/or prostitution, but to show us how Shaw wished that people like Vivie could change, rather than showing us how they don’t change. Shaw did take just that approach in so many of his plays, letting one or two of his central characters come to new and more complicated understandings of their worlds, even as the more conventional supporting characters around them held fast to their conventional, sentimental, black-and-white attitudes. But Shaw hadn’t tumbled to doing that yet with Mrs. Warren’s Profession, which was only his second play.
This production, though, does something that I don’t remember seeing before or remember ever occurring to me before in reading the play, and that is to make us see Vivie’s inflexibility as her way of coping with her profound fear of the world, of its sensuality, and of her own feelings. The production shows us that she is not so much going out into the world on her own as she is locking herself up tightly in a fortress she’s building higher and higher around herself. I still didn’t completely believe in Vivie as a human being, but the approach in this production came closer to making the play work for me than I can remember it ever doing before.
I thought Timothy Near’s direction contained a great many memorable and telling moments, maybe the most powerful of all being the sequence at the very beginning, all done silently before a line of dialogue is said, as we watch Mrs. Warren and Vivie, each in her own home, getting dressed in the morning. Vivie dresses herself in comparatively simple and lightweight clothing, while Mrs. Warren puts on layer after complicated layer with the help of two maids, starting with a corset (trying stoically not to wince as a maid puts a knee to her back and gives a firm tug to tighten the laces just another tiny bit) and a bustle and ending with a jacket and full skirt in a rich, beautiful, and very heavy-looking fabric. Her day hasn’t even begun and already she’s breathing a little harder just from getting dressed — but by God, she has created exactly the effect she wants and needs to create. It’s a brilliant opening, and Stacy Ross’s acting through it is brilliant, too — she seems to do very little, just stands and looks at herself in a mirror as she is dressed by her maids, and yet by the end of the sequence we know, before a word has been spoken, a great deal about Mrs. Warren, her character, her position in the world, her attitude toward it. And about the differences between her and her daughter.