Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association, photo by Tom McGrath, TCMcG Photography.
In all these years, I have never before seen a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession (just another of my many failings as a theatre critic). I knew, of course, what the titular “profession” is, but that’s about it. I did, however, know Shaw. So I went into the opening of Promethean Theatre Ensemble’s new production expecting clever Shavian wordplay and an entertaining night at the theatre. I was not mistaken on either count. Michael D. Graham’s sensitive and sure directorial hand leads to some excellent performances while this stripped-down and carefully edited production fits beautifully onto Otherworld Theatre’s stage, making good use of a revolving set piece designed by Conor Clark.
Graham’s cast is uniformly strong. In the central role of Vivie Warren, Tracey Greenwood is stellar. Completely believable and self-assured as the businesslike, unemotional, fatherless daughter of a mother who is never around, Greenwood embodies all of the aspects of this internally contradictory character. Vivie flirts half-heartedly with Frank, the lazy young man who would love to become her husband (an appealing Chris Woolsey) and who refers to himself as her “little boy” while pretty much assuming all of the responsibility of one, but she has no intention of marrying. As she powerfully asserts to her mother’s friends Praed (Ross Frawley) and Sir John Crofts (Jared Dennis) at the play’s start, she is utterly determined to break away from her mother and make a career for herself as an actuary, her love of math signifying the extent of her aromatic nature.
As her mother, Elaine Carlson is pretty much perfect. We catch her here in one of her rare visits with her daughter, and Kitty Warren—despite being successful in a business (prostitution) in which she deals with many young women—doesn’t quite know how to deal with Vivie. Shut down in her brief efforts to demand respect from her, she instead plays on her daughter’s sympathies (proof positive that she truly doesn’t know who Vivie is). But Carlson is so bluntly honest about her character and her hard past that she manages to cut through the younger Warren’s resolve and get her to see that, poor as she was, Kitty had little real choice other than doing what she did.
The revolving relationship between mother and daughter is reflected in the changing dynamic between the actresses, and Greenwood shows a very different version of Vivie during a momentary bond with Mrs. Warren. But her mother’s confession ushers in a new era for her in more than one way, as what had been an open secret known to pretty much everyone but Vivie becomes fodder for innuendoes by Kitty’s comrades, especially Crofts.
As is the case with all of the actors, Dennis creates a singular and well-defined Crofts. Sharp tempered and fully capable of being nasty—quite in contrast to his majesterial appearance—his Crofts very clearly holds just about everyone else in contempt. His sole interest lies in making money, and he believes that his prowess in that pursuit makes him such a catch that he can easily win the heart of Vivie. The other men are similarly deluded. Woolsey’s Frank, though an openly unambitious layabout, manages to convince himself that she is in love with him. Frawley’s Praed, too, misreads her entirely, continuing throughout the play to believe her capable of emotion and change despite all evidence to the contrary. Only Ted Hoerl’s Rev. Samuel Gardner seems immune to her, but then he is a married man with several children as well as a priest, both apparently serving as proof against spending much time thinking about her at all.
This production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession relies heavily on its talented actors to move its plot along, and under Graham’s direction they are more than capable. Melanie Spewock’s editing, certainly welcome in what would otherwise have been a considerably longer play, works well for the most part in excising what she refers to as “obscure period references and redundant exposition,” but there does seem to be something notably missing as the second act begins and things suddenly leap forward a bit too abruptly, resulting in a loss of character motivation. However, it is mostly a momentary issue that does not change the effectiveness of the play. The audience still laughs in reaction to Shaw’s language and empathizes with Kitty and Vivie where it should, and the play remains fully faithful to Shaw’s intentions. The chairs may be less than comfortable and a bit too tightly packed, but Promethean’s Mrs. Warren is extremely enjoyable.
Mrs. Warren’s Profession is a Promethean Theatre Ensemble production now playing at Otherworld Theatre, 3914 N. Clark, Chicago, IL, until Mar 29. The show runs approximately 2:10; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.