Far From the Tree?

The tennis-court style staging of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, directed by Kathleen O’Neill, puts one immediately into the action and witty repartee of one of George Bernard Shaw’s best plays, without feeling the least bit self-conscious. The minimalist set, designed by Ben Salzbach for the black box space is at once intimate and all-encompassing, sandwiched between dual risers of viewers, a perfect vantage point to observe all of the nuances and developments (and perhaps other viewers’ reactions) volleying back and forth among the six talented players. From the first moments of the play when we meet Miss Vivie Warren, played crisply by Caralyn Kozlowski, the modern young woman drawn by Shaw circa 1893 is so contemporary that we feel as if we might know her. Her distant yet generously supportive mother, Mrs. Warren, is a former prostitute and current “manager” of several brothels across the continent. Joy Franz brings depth and humility to the superficially stereotypical, yet complex character, especially in her lapses back to the girl she once was, torn between her limited options and burning ambition.

The conflict between these two strong women, both somewhat defined by their circumstances, whether comfortable or trail-blazing, incites the next two hours, with nary a dull moment in the swiftly paced four acts. With its biting feminist perspective, shifting relationships, and social commentary as only Shaw can deliver, the play created such a shock in his time that it was immediately banned after publication, causing an eight-year delay in its production on the London stage.

In his extensive Author’s Apology, Shaw addresses his critics, further elucidating the need for meaningful social criticism, which is often (even today) totally misunderstood. This case directly evokes our current climate, like the ongoing debate over sex education, for example, becoming politicized and being misconstrued as condoning behavior instead of preventing disease, now a global health concern. The issues in Shaw’s essay are fresh, and the backstory of Victorian England’s response to his play further contextualizes his work for us now.

On a lighter note, upon stepping into Manhattan Theatre Source, I’m informed by my savvy companion that the same Greenwich Village location once housed Fred Leighton’s dress shop (when he was still importing clothing from Mexico, before moving uptown and into celebrity jewelry design). It’s a colorful tidbit, and the lobby does still feel a bit like a showroom, complete with a welcoming violinist, Jennifer Axelson, playing in front of the telltale shop windows, and an inviting café space and gallery/bookstore further inside. But it’s upstairs in the black box theater space where the real transformations happen now.

Joseph Franchini’s performance as Praed is also a gem, from the time he nervously approaches to meet Vivie and becomes inexorably drawn into the family’s drama. He too is a rather helpless and limited product of his station, as you could argue is Mrs. Warren’s “business partner,” Sir George Crofts (his title somehow making him all the more repulsive), played by David Palmer Brown. That each character wholeheartedly believes in his own standpoint and worldview, whether with a sense of naïveté or entitlement, makes their interactions captivating and provocative to watch throughout the performance.

Two other male characters, Frank Gardner, played suavely by James Dutton, and his father, Ashton Crosby’s bumbling Reverend Gardner, further complicate matters as a potential love interest for Vivie, and perhaps her mother – present and/or past – respectively. (Confusing? Yes!) Their unique positions round out the plot in intriguing and amusing ways.

Like the tennis match setup, we’re watching for chinks in the armor, machinations being conceived or enacted, perhaps crafting our own theories. Franz’ Mrs. Warren deliciously flirts, manipulates, schemes, performs, and finally pleads her desires, trying anything to insinuate herself back into her daughter’s life. But once Vivie learns the whole truth about her mother’s choices, it may be too late. And Mrs. Warren’s concept of love-as-ROI, the commodity that has dictated her entire “professional” life, just doesn’t seem to be working this time around. At the same time, Vivie is not unlike her mother, matter-of-factly making a choice and trying to strike out on her own. The bottom line for women here: no matter what the circumstances, one’s choices can often be severely limited. Many salient points, brilliantly woven through by Shaw, are up for modern conversation.

Finally, the wonderful costuming by David Withrow also expresses the ideas of the play beautifully. Mrs. Warren’s fine dress, high style and overall affectations directly contrast with Vivie’s smart tied-back dress/riding trousers and ankle boot combo. She often sports the tools of her trade, and while the others seem content to revel in their hats, gloves, canes, and other accoutrements, Kozlowski’s Vivie eschews hats, picks off her lace gloves finger by finger, and fidgets with her pouches, watch and pens. Praed’s hat and tight suit are perfect for him, and all of the characters are well clad and coiffed, evoking the period as well as the individual roles they’ve chosen in their society. And it all fits like a glove (or to be more site-specific, like a Fred Leighton import).

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