Sally Hawkins and Cherry Jones in Mrs. Warren's Profession
When you go to see a play written by George Bernard Shaw, you can expect a little whiplash of the brain before it's over. You think you're going to a glittering comedy with lovely sets and costumes of a bygone era--and you are--but before it's over you have been challenged right and left as you try to decide whom to root for, if anybody.
Mrs. Warren's Profession, a smart-looking antique with a stellar cast, will give you food for thought on the topic of working women, Victorian hypocrisy, and how the world has and hasn't changed in the last hundred years.
Written in the late 1800's, the play was first produced in 1902, causing great scandal in London. The "profession" of the title is one of the world's oldest--that of madam. And the play went on to make fun and scalding commentary on the manners and mores of the day. Shaw said, according to Wikipedia, that he wrote the play "to draw attention to the truth that prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing, and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together."
Fast forward to the new production at the American Airlines Theater in New York. Playing the role of Mrs. Warren is the dazzling Cherry Jones, who originated the Meryl Street role in Doubt, among other Broadway triumphs, and has the critics at her feet every time she steps onto a stage. I was delighted to see her and am pleased to report that she was a marvel to watch. I also enjoyed the work of Sally Hawkins, a young English actress who plays Mrs. Warren's daughter.
I went back to the NY Times review after having seen the play and was disappointed that the critic had all but dismissed Miss Hawkins, in spite of the sterling performance I saw. It seems he had seen this play in the 2005 London production in which Brenda Blethyn essayed the role of Mrs. Warren and he thought the play belonged to the daughter, played by Rebecca Hall in her stage debut. I'll just have to differ, not having seen the London production. In the Roundabout Theater's version there is a constant battle for the sympathy of the audience, and some are bound to choose one side or the other. I rather liked the old dragon (played by a not-old Miss Jones) but I could see why the daughter was distraught at the old way of doing things and ready to change the world for women of the future, one of which I am.
It's not a easy play, aside from the lovely sets and costumes, and I heard ever so many comments from my fellow theatergoers to the general effect that they couldn't understand the accents, much less the points being made. To see a play by George Bernard Shaw, surely these sophisticated New Yorkers, most of whom were greyhairs like me, one has to expect to strain the brain and ears a little. I wanted to make an announcement: "Come on, people. You can get this. You are my tribe--you've been attending plays for fifty years or more, and this is Shaw! It's not Shrek the Musical or The Addams Family. It's the kind of play we were raised seeing, with nuance, character and plot and elegant dialogue. You must remember plays like this!" In short, Mrs. Warren's Profession is an old-fashioned play in the best sense. It's a workout, but leaves you with much to ponder, decide, smile about, and remember.