More than a century ago, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” a drama by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was banned before it opened, due to the “scandalous” subject matter. When it finally was produced eight years later, in 1902, the reviews were universally negative. Its premiere production in New York City in 1905 was interrupted by the police who arrested the cast and crew. Even though all were released, the shameful aura surrounding the tale of a successful madam was difficult to escape.
Today, however, the production currently on stage at New World Arts hardly evokes a hint of the former scandal. The times, they definitely have changed! Mrs. Warren is a typical Shaw heroine. She has done what was necessary to provide financial security and independence for herself and to give her daughter money, clothes, an excellent education and a life above reproach: She began as a prostitute and, seeing where most of the money from this life was made, became the owner/operator of several high class “private hotels” in major cities throughout Europe. She has kept her lifestyle from her daughter, Vivie, who has seen little of her mother throughout her life. When the two meet here, their shifting relationship — and the influence of the several men in their lifes —is the focus of the play. As shocking as Shaw’s characters and themes were at the turn of the 20th century, it is a sad commentary on today’s lifestyle that they shock hardly at all. The hypocrisy of Vivie’s attitude towards her mother’s vocation, which vanishes when she learns of Kitty Warren’s difficult life and returns full force when she realizes her mother has no wish to give up her “career,” could be the plot of any modern drama, while the reactions of the “gentlemen” seem no more unusual than the headlines of supermarket tabloids. The NWA cast handles Shaw’s lengthy dialogue intelligently and as easily as possible. Tiny Julie Keim has the title role with Tara Schaefer as Vivie; Mike Honderich is Mr. Praed, an advocate of art and beauty as opposed to commercialism; Geoffrey Owens is the Rev. Samuel Gardner, a clergyman with a hidden sins; Ricky Fields is his son Frank, a diletante suitor for Vivie’s hand; and Chuck Bower is Sir George Crofts, an original investor in Kitty’s business who nevertheless proposes to Vivie. The women’s costumes do little for either, with the outfit (and ridiculous hat) assigned to Mrs. Warren more fitting for a Pick-A-Little lady than a successful business woman and Vivie’s skirt sporting a line of pins in the hem. These are things that can be addressed, as is the set. Having seen the first NWA production of this season, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” I am aware that it is possible to put a real set on the small stage. A black box setting is fine for shows like “The Pillowman,” but Shaw deserves more than a couple of non-period chairs, a ridiculously low bench and three double-sided flats propped up against the curtains to indicate interior locations. Production values — set, lights, costumes and props—are integral parts of any show and, given the venue, should be addressed with as much attention to detail as possible.
“MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Nov. 19-20 in the theater at 211 S. Main Street in Goshen. Tickets at the door.