Review: Remy Bumppo’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”

 

Annabel Armour and Susan Shunk, currently starring in Mrs. Warren's Profession, by George Bernard Shaw, presented by Chicago's Remy Bumppo Theatre

Prostitution and incest – topics that have fueled many a modern play, were extremely taboo subjects in 19th-century Victorian England. So it’s wholly understandable that George Bernard Shaw’s comedic drama, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, which deals with these themes (real or implied), would cause such an uproar in 1893 London. The work was completely banned for seven years. Indeed, when the play finally leapt to American shores, opening in New York in 1905, it was shut down on opening night, with two of the lead actors arrested and thrown in jail. And modern day stage actors think they have it bad!

Along with these obvious moral no-no’s, Mrs. Warren’s Profession also presented the threatening notion that women actually might have a choice in seeking a satisfying profession rather than rely on men to supply their security. Going beyond this, Shaw’s work also exposed the high emotional cost that could occur with this possible female independence.

Remy Bumppo Theatre has successfully discovered the perfect rhythm of Shaw’s flowing and introspective voice – Mrs. Warren’s Profession is darkly delightful. The two leading women are superb, accenting the directing prowess of David Darlow. Annabel Armour radiantly shines through her performance of the scandalous Mrs. Kitty Warren. Armour has created a character that, rather than reviled (or at least pitied), draws compassion. We understand her plight and are proud of what she has done with her life. Susan Shunk, playing Mrs. Warren’s Cambridge-graduated daughter, Vivie, is masterful in finding her character’s complexities – she is strong-willed in combating the social demands of a woman of the time, but reaches further into her character by communicating Vivie’s insecurities: shunning other people in her life, using her supposed resolute independence in order to avoid any situation that would make her seem vulnerable and unsure of herself to others.

Backing up these two talented leads are the charismatic Matt Schwader as perennial tease Frank Gardner (who might be Vivie’s half-brother, hence the implied incest), the fatherly Donald Brearley as Praed, Joe Van Slyke as the confused Reverend Gardner, and Kevin Gudahl as Mrs. Kitty’s shrewd (and boorish) business partner, Sir George Crofts

Mrs. Warren’s Profession is slow in the beginning, the first scene gives us the feeling that we are witnessing a study in character development rather than engrossing us in the play’s rich language. Also, George Bernard Shaw has offered up a few implausible circumstances: Why wouldn’t a grown daughter know whether her mother was married or not? Why wouldn’t same daughter be curious as to where the tuition money supplied by her mother was originating? What was her mother doing when traveling all over Europe (and why wouldn’t the well-educated daughter want to go along with her mother to such cultural cities of Berlin, Brussels and Budapest)? Perhaps these are questions that would not seem so odd at the time the play was written – that children did not question their parents or analyze their situations. Who knows?

Overall, Mrs. Warren’s Profession is an exquisite study of the struggles women once faced (and still face) when yearning to obtain a decent standard of living through an enjoyable career rather than succumb to the morally acceptable road of seeking a husband for security. Through Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Remy Bumppo has presented a highly-satisfying resonant coda to their theatrical season.  

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