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Theater Review - Working girls

Mrs. Warren reconsiders the oldest profession

No one in the Alliance Theatre's production of "Mrs. Warren's Profession" ever comes out and says exactly what Mrs. Warren does to earn her fortune. Propriety bound playwright George Bernard Shaw from being too specific in 1893, although the play leaves no doubt that Mrs. Warren's profession is the oldest one.

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Standards change over more than a century, so while Shaw had to use euphemisms for prostitution, today words like "pimp" are so common they take on new meanings, like car-decoration. "Mrs. Warren's Profession" may be a dated play, but the Alliance production, directed by Susan V. Booth, reveals it to be dated in intriguing ways as it examines the career choices for women of different generations.

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In Shaw's play, Vivie Warren (Annie Meisels) barely knows her mother, who spent most of her time in Europe while Vivie grew up attending English boarding schools. By the standards of the 1890s, Vivie's a thoroughly modern young woman, having recently graduated with honors in the "unfeminine" discipline of mathematics. She's contemplating an actuarial career when Mrs. Warren (Patricia Hodges) pays her daughter a visit at an English country cottage. The older woman ends up giving the sheltered scholar a crash course in economic realities.

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In a long speech, lit as if by a dim firelight, Mrs. Warren recounts how she turned to prostitution to escape dead-end jobs as a barmaid and factory worker. Hodges' performance carefully shapes Mrs. Warren's social complexities; she can pass in so-called decent society with a veneer of gentility but conveys intimidating resolve and a seasoned sense of humor without being too earthy. Hodges becomes a bit too vigorous in some of the high-emotion scenes, pacing the stage and slicing the air with sharp gestures. It's like seeing an opera diva work overtime to communicate a role sung in a foreign language.

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Then as now, most playwrights exploring the situation would have the daughter, raised with comfortable middle-class values, reject her "immoral" mother. Instead, Vivie's dedication to feminine independence leads her to embrace her mother for making the most of terrible choices, although things aren't even as simple as that. The play gets a laugh when Mrs. Warren exclaims, "Treat my daughter with respect?" but what makes a respectable woman turns out to be a complicated question.

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Like the captain of the debate team, Shaw can excitingly — and exhaustingly — argue all sides of an issue, and crafts a compelling scene when Vivie's idealism collides hard with the brutal pragmatism of Sir George Crofts (Peter Van Wagner), Mrs. Warren's well-connected business partner. As one of Shaw's first plays, "Mrs. Warren's Profession" shows the playwright just warming up. Future masterpieces such as "Pygmalion" or "Man and Superman" struck a precise balance between humor and social commentary, but in Mrs. Warren humor fits more awkwardly with the hefty drama.

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Similarly, Michael Philippi's set looks a little too much like a storybook cottage, as if it's a time-share with Little Red Riding Hood. The idyllic country backdrops set up a powerful contrast with the final scene at a financial office, where a vast wall of safe-deposit boxes creates a crushing image of soul-less capitalism.

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Meisels conveys plenty of amusing exasperation, especially when confronted by the old-fashioned elders. The actress shows such ironic humor and passionate warmth that her performance doesn't quite anticipate Vivie's colder, harsher choices in the play's final scene.

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"Mrs. Warren's Profession" concludes on a powerful but rather perplexing tone, suggesting that careerism spells a kind of loveless death sentence for women of the time. I suspect that Booth's interpretation implies that Vivie goes to unnecessary extremes to become a woman of independent means — that she's as much at fault as the society of Shaw's era.

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Compared to the bad choices presented by Shaw's play, maybe the women of today really can have it all.