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Wealth and Woe in Mrs. Warren's Profession

The Alley ignites a firecracker production

Woe be to the mother who raises an unappreciative daughter. Mrs. Warren, the title character of Alley Theatre's firecracker production of George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, can tell us all a thing or two about such girls. When Vivie, the daughter Mrs. Warren raises to blueblood respectability, learns how her mother paid for her fancy education, she tells dear old mum to take a hike. What kind of thank-you is that?

At the turn of the 20th century, when Shaw wrote this elegant polemic for gender equality, few jobs were open to women, especially those of the working class. His story, full of irony about the hypocrisy and cruelty of his Victorian world, focuses on Mrs. Warren (Elizabeth Heflin), a woman who raises herself out of the gutter to become a wealthy, well-traveled madam, running several brothels throughout Europe. Her daughter has been kept in the dark about her mother's profession throughout her charmed upbringing at exclusive boarding schools. It's when she comes home after graduating that her mother decides it's time Vivie (Jane Pfitsch) learn the truth about Mom. Unfortunately for Mrs. Warren, her daughter does not react quite as she had planned.

The resemblance between Mrs. Warren and her daughter (Elizabeth Heflin and Jane Pfitsch) is clear — to the audience.
Michal Daniel
The resemblance between Mrs. Warren and her daughter (Elizabeth Heflin and Jane Pfitsch) is clear — to the audience.

Details

Through February 1. The Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. Tickets start at $21.

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Woven into this angry tale are four men; each enacts at least one of the problems Shaw sees in the rigid world his play questions. There's Sir George Crofts (played by a wonderfully oily Todd Waite), the cruel capitalist who's made lots of dough by investing in Mrs. Warren's brothels. The old geezer wants to marry young Vivie. Praed (John Tyson) is an artist of sorts. He's gentle but ultimately as priggish as the rest of this world, though he wants to think of himself as above such hypocrisy. The Reverend Samuel Gardner (James Belcher) is the ultimate idiot. He's supposed to be a man of God, but he's only interested in his wealthy parishioners; of course, he's got a nasty past we learn about when he encounters Mrs. Warren. Finally there's Frank Gardner (Brandon Hearnsberger), the slothful son of the Reverend. He wants to marry Vivie because she's rich and can pay for all his gambling. This quartet of testosterone-driven boneheads is enough to drive any woman to want to squeeze every dollar she can out of men.

The Alley's production, directed with speed and clarity by Anders Cato, brings several of Shaw's arguments into focus. When Heflin's tawdry Mrs. Warren sits down to explain to Vivie what drove her to her profession in the first place, we get a sad tale told without sentimentality. This scene is perhaps the best in the entire production; Heflin is wonderfully convincing as a woman who looked at her options and then chose the least awful. One sister died from lead poisoning working in a factory, and when another sister suggested she use her good looks to better her position, the young Mrs. Warren saw her way out. The tale charms Vivie at first. In fact, it's not until she later learns what a terrific businesswoman Mrs. Warren continues to be that Vivie gets enraged with her mother.

This inability to get beyond her own prejudices ironically comes from Vivie's clean schoolgirl upbringing paid for by Mrs. Warren's dirty profession — a fact that Vivie is blind to. Even worse, Vivie herself is very much her mother's daughter. Vivie excels at business, and she sets her sights on making money as an actuary. Each woman loves to work, and each wants the other to stop working. The never-married Mrs. Warren wants to keep her daughter in fine dresses until the girl marries. Mrs. Warren doesn't want her daughter having to scrimp or save or work hard in an office. Vivie, on the other hand, doesn't understand why her mother continues to work. She's already amassed a fortune — why doesn't she live her life like a lady? Each woman looks at the other and can't see herself, though we in the audience can see the resemblance clearly.

When Mrs. Warren realizes that her daughter has actually rejected her, Heflin rages with real passion. The moment is hair-raising and horribly sad. Heflin lets loose a spitting, clawing lion of a mother who's been gashed to the very soul by her own daughter. Her wail as she falls to the floor hangs heavy in the air of the theater.

This production is built of the stuff that will make you think and argue with friends afterward. Shaw weaves some terrifically paradoxical arguments about capitalism, the rank of women and the place of morality in business into his story — all of which is still pertinent today.

Mrs. Warren's Profession

 
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