Rochester sees quite a bit of Shakespeare in the course of a theater season, but almost nothing from his runner-up in the Greatest English Playwright sweepstakes (and match in productivity), George Bernard Shaw. Last year Rochester's Black Sheep Theatre presented Shaw's early play "Widowers' Houses"; this month it is presenting "Mrs. Warren's Profession" — another early play and the earliest of Shaw's that is still performed regularly. If this is a sign of things to come, I welcome it. There's no reason you should have to travel to Canada or New York City to see a Shaw play.
Shaw termed both of these plays "unpleasant" because the subjects they deal with were, and still are, unpleasant. "Widowers' Houses" attacks slum landlords; as for Mrs. Warren (played by Diane Mashia), her profession is the oldest one. Well, the second-oldest: she has raised herself up from prostitution to be a wealthy madam of numerous European brothels. Her daughter Vivie (Laura Reed), who has just graduated from college with a mathematics degree, knows nothing about her mother's profession, and until halfway through the play, next to nothing about her mother.
The other characters include three old friends of Mrs. Warren: Sir George Crofts (Kevin Swift), Rev. Samuel Gardiner (Richard Mancini), and a Mr. Praed (Brian Pienkoski). Crofts is Mrs. Warren's business partner and has his eye on Vivie; Gardiner is a former rake who has become a country curate; Praed is a vaguely artistic, vaguely sympathetic creature. Gardiner's son Frank (Ray Baird) has a crush on Vivie, which abruptly ends after (as they said in Victorian melodrama) a Shocking Revelation.
According to Shaw, every one of them is a prostitute, living off a corrupt society. When faced with the truth that her mother has not retired from "the business" but is still thriving, Vivie's reaction is to renounce Frank, her family, and most human contact and withdraw completely into her work, making calculations for actuarial tables (which certainly sounds like an additional circle of hell to me). This is as close as Shaw ever got to a tragic ending, and his lack of a reasonable solution to the problem may account for the scorn with which he held this play later in life.
"Mrs. Warren's Profession" was considered so distasteful that it wasn't produced at all until 1902, eight years after it was written — and not professionally, but at a private club in London. It was not professionally produced until 1925 — "too late," said Shaw with unusual concision. Shaw also described his play, despite the sensational subject matter, as "quite prudish." Indeed, the name of Mrs. Warren's profession is never actually uttered.
Black Sheep's production, using a text trimmed judiciously by director Jim Landers, puts this still-lively play through its paces quite well. It would be silly to expect anything on the level of the virtuoso acting and lavish sets you'd see at the Shaw Festival, but this play is definitely strong enough to take a simpler, more direct treatment .Seeing it in such close quarters as the Black Sheep's tiny theater adds a frisson to many of the scenes. (That 1902 production may have been in a very similar space.)
The opening-weekend performance I saw was tentative in spots — some fluffed lines (quickly recovered) and a couple of off lighting cues — but it was mostly well spoken and well presented. Shaw described the character of Mrs. Warren as "a deplorable old rip." Most actresses would simply call it a great role. Coral Browne, in an old BBC production of the play, seemed to me to fill the bill ideally: flashily dressed, easygoing, and basically common. Diane Mashia plays Mrs. Warren as restrained, reasonable, and rather classy. This approach takes some of the heat out of her encounters with her daughter. On the other hand, it does make Mrs. Warren seem like a canny businesswoman, and the determined young Vivie seem like a chip off the old block. Laura Reed definitely plays up Vivie's hard, sensible qualities. When she melts momentarily in scenes with her mother and with Frank, it is quite striking.
I've seen Frank Gardiner, Vivie's erstwhile suitor, played as a deplorable young rip; Ray Baird makes him energetic and rather puppyish, which works just as well — he seems just as destroyed by the revelations in the play as Vivie. Kevin Swift comes into his own in the third act, showing Crofts true (nasty) colors in his confrontation with Vivie. Richard Mancini is a nicely befuddled Reverend Gardiner, in the long British tradition of befuddled ministers. And playing someone ineffectual is hard work, but Brian Pienkoski does well as Mr. Praed, and shows some genuine, touching concern for Vivie at the end of the play in a nicely subtle way.
Shaw went on to write plays more accomplished than "Mrs. Warren's Profession," but this one remains as thought-provoking as ever. I would not miss the opportunity to see it, or to encourage Black Sheep Theatre to give more Shaw a try.