What is Mrs. Warren’s Profession?

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of George Bernard Shaw‘s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” is gorgeous to look at, often out-loud funny, even more often sharp and witty and wonderfully acted. It’s also, in the end, devastating and cruel. Call it a comic tragedy, a tragic comedy. Mostly, put it on your theater calendar if you haven’t done so already.

The reasons? The main ones are Elizabeth Ashley and Amanda Quaid as mother and daughter, and, this being Shaw, protagonists and antagonists. This being a Shakespeare Theatre production, you can be sure that director Keith Baxter can take a good share of the credit.

Baxter has directed a number of terrific comedic productions here, including two Oscar Wilde plays starring Dixie Carter, who was supposed to have starred in this production but succumbed to cancer.

Ashley fills in, and there is no question that this Mrs. Warren is Ashley’s Mrs. Warren. Mrs. Warren, to set the scene, is a hugely successful proprietor and manager of a string of brothels, a profession which has allowed her a regal life and the ability to raise her daughter Vivie in a country house and give her the Oxford education that has made her a steely, very modern young lady.

Set early on in the country, it has a first act full of revelations, which are less devastating perhaps than they ought to be. Vivie was never aware of her mother’s history or lifestyle, but accepts at first the fact that it was the only route to prosperity for her mum, who came from a poverty-tainted background.

Alas, what she doesn’t know is that mom isn’t about to give up the business; it’s too lucrative, too successful, it allows mom to be mom. And that’s where the two women — strong-minded, stubborn, each with her own code — clash to the pain of both.

This is a play about cynicism, hypocrisy, the good old English class system and, of course, the effects of wealth and power. It’s not a fight for love or glory, but a battle for the high ground.

Quaid’s Vivie is lovely, all cheek and bones, she stands so straight that sometimes you think somebody should slap her for her principled stands. Ashley’s Mrs. Warren, on the other hand, moves like a billowing battleship, all guns blazing in dresses that can’t even come close to stifling a giant willful spirit.

In this battle, there are the usual suspects of characters: a parson and a parson’s son who chases Vivie madly, an older creative type (wonderfully played by Ted Van Griethuysen) and a cynical lord who’s Mrs. Warren’s not-so-silent partner. Still, they are mere foot soldiers in the battle between mother and daughter, and none of them have an ounce of the two women’s solidity.

“Mrs. Warren’s Profession” runs at Sidney Harman Hall through July 11.

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