Is it nobler for a woman with limited prospects to slave away for minimum wage at a fast food joint or to work the streets for a stash of cash?
This is my modern take on the central idea of George Bernard Shaw’s play “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” now being staged by the Remy Bumppo Theatre Company at Victory Gardens Theater. Shaw frames the premise in more measured Victorian terms, writing in a 1902 essay, “Mrs. Warren’s profession was written in 1894, to draw attention to the truth that prostitution is caused, not by female depravity or male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing, and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together.”
Shaw’s play examines the issue through the voices of Mrs. Warren, a prostitute and madam, and her daughter Vivie, an independent minded Cambridge-educated woman. When Vivie finds out her high education and luxuriant position in life have been sustained by her mother’s lurid profession, she is appalled and engages her mother in furious debate. Scattered amongst this debate are other questions about a woman’s right of independence, whether marriage should be for love or money, and whether any of the play’s colorful characters, Praed, Sir George Crofts, or the Reverend Samuel Gardner, her mother’s friends and former lovers, are Vivie’s father.
Annabel Armour is both cocksure (when she defends her profession) and visceral (when she realizes her daughter is rejecting her) in her turn as the elder Mrs. Warren. Susan Shunk’s Vivie, while solid, has a withering quality when contrasted against Armour’s emotional power. Matt Schwader, Shunk’s real life husband, is incredibly charming as her love interest Frank Gardner, and Joe Van Slyke’s turn as the doddering reverend Samuel Gardner is also amusing.
Janice Pytel’s costume design, especially Mrs. Warren’s Victorian-chic, which includes a spectacular plume feathered-hat is arresting. The only real shortcoming of the play is the set’s eclectic backdrop, a collage wall including bills, miscellaneous documents, and the Toulouse Lautrec painting “La Goulue arriving at the Moulin Rouge”. It may be that the wall was supposed to represent the different sets in the play: Vivie’s boarding house, her workplace, etc., but ultimately it was just confusing.
Many modern theatre troupes choose plays in some part for their ability to make money and attract crowds. This ultimately means audiences have to endure a lot of boring era-specific irrelevance from noted playwrights, or the 100,000th performance of “Death of a Salesman”. Sure, Shaw is no slack, but the Bumppo folks are no mere star worshippers. Rather, the choice to stage this production in an era where a porn-star like Jenna Jameson is both deified and vilified, illustrates the troupe’s knack for choosing smart relevant material. And while our society has still not answered Shaw’s question, the Bumppo staging proves the perfect venue to draw your own conclusions about Mrs. Warren’s Profession.
Mrs. Warren’s Profession runs through April 22 at Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theater located at 2257 N. Lincoln. Call the box office at 773-871-3000 or surf online at www.remybumppo.org for tickets.
This article first appeared on centerstagechicago.com