Sunday, April 23, 2006

Mrs. Warren's Profession (Beck Center)

‘MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION’ challenges cast and audience and Beck

Playwright and social critic George Bernard Shaw never backed away from a battle. His play, ‘MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION’ was written in 1893, published in 1898, but not performed until 1902 because of British government censorship. When a private performance was finally arranged, it rocked the London theatre. It was, according to the testimony of the author, ‘like an earthquake which shocked the foundations of morality and sent a pallid crowd of critics into the street shrieking that the pillars of society are cracking and the ruin of the state was at hand."
What was the fuss all about?

Mrs. Warren has never disclosed to her Cambridge graduate daughter, Vivie who Vivie's father is and how Mrs. Warren earns her money. During a visit, Vivie is “accidentally” told that her mother is a member of the "oldest profession." Mrs. Warren's confession, "All we had was our appearance and our turn for pleasing men" is met with a sympathetic hearing from her daughter. But after a series of events which challenge Vivie’s ethical system, she rejects her mother.

In the most notorious scene of the play, Mrs. Warren states, “You think that the way you were taught at school to think right and proper is the way things really are. But it's not. It's all only a pretense, to keep the cowardly, slavish, common run of people quiet. The big people, the clever people, the managing people, all know it. They do as I do, and think as I think. Morality means being a mere drudge, toiling and moiling early and late for your bare living and two cheap dresses a year."

Shaw not only examines women, but also men. Each of his male characters represents a type: the aesthete and artist (Mr. Praed), the feckless young man (Frank Gardner), the unscrupulous capitalist (Sir George Crofts) and the hypocritical vicar (Reverend Samuel Gardner). Shaw's perception of Victorian society draws all these men as caricatures and all of them are vile in their own way.

‘MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION’ was Shaw’s third play and did much to establish him as a social critic. He exposes the weaknesses of the British education system, the negative treatment of women, the flaws of religion, the value of determinism, the foibles of marriage, the questionable value of families, and the negative effects of capitalism. These are issues as relevant today as during Shaw’s time.

Interestingly, after the first World War, when women started to enter the professions, it became possible to mount a public showing of "MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION" without the fear of censorship. Yet, the play continues to make certain audience members and some critics uncomfortable.

British drama and comedy are difficult for American actors and directors to get exactly right. The accents, the pacing, the subtle character developments necessary to make the plays believable, are often lost on non-British or Canadian-trained actors. One only has to see a Shaw play done at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada and an American creation of the same script, to note the difference. With that said, Beck’s production, under the direction of Scott Plate, is a generally acceptable US American creation.

Dorothy Silver, the first lady of Cleveland theatre, makes Mrs. Warren both believable and a strong spokesperson for Shaw’s views. She nicely textures the role. The conflict scene between Mrs. Warren and her daughter is well developed.

Bernadette Clemens is properly uptight as Vivie Warren. Though at times her accent seems overly affected, it helps separate her from her mother, who, when riled, falls into her historic lower-class English pronunciation.

Nick Koesters effectively develops the role of Frank Gardner, the gambling son of a Reverend, who sees Vivie as his possible source of financial support. He thrusts and paries well with the emotional levels of the character though at times he seems to be playing with rather than playing the role.

Though too young for the part (the character was written to be in his sixties), Jeffrey Grover (Sir George Crofts) makes for an acceptable cad, but could have textured the role to create a character that was more bi-polar--swinging from charming to deceitful. Michael Regnier (Mr. Praed) and Reuben Silver (Reverand Gardner) are believable in their roles though more textured characterizations could have been developed to illustrate the conrasting sides of the men’s personalities.

Shaw, who often draws attention to the pronunciation of people as the hallmark of their background (think Liza Dolittle and Henry Higgins in ‘PYGMALION’) would not have been pleased with some of the accents of the Beck cast. The sounds came and went and differed for no particular reason.

Don McBride’s set design did little to create a “high class” illusion. Especially distracting were some of the poorly restorred chairs whose squeaking often broke the mood of scenes. On the other hand, Richard Ingraham’s selection of music set the proper tone before the opening curtain and between scenes. Jenniver Sparano’s costumes were outstanding and era correct.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck’s ‘MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION’ is a creditable production, with some excellent acting.