Review: `Mrs. Warren’s Profession’

Opened March 21, 2008, Ashby Playhouse, Berkeley

Trish Mulholland as Mrs. Warren, Emily Jordan as Vivie. Photos by Howard Gerstein

Shotgun Players do bang up work on Shaw’s Profession
three 1/2 stars Zesty Shaw

“There are no secrets better kept than the secrets that everybody guesses.” So says a character in George Bernard Shaw’s secret-filled comedy Mrs. Warren’s Profession, a play banned in England in the 1890s due to “lascivious content.”

Of course there’s no better way to grab attention than to call something dirty, so Shaw’s play about women’s liberation, fashionable morality and widespread cultural hypocrisy eventually made it onto the stage in 1925.

Only Shaw’s third play, Mrs. Warren is incredibly sharp and funny. It gets preachy, as Shaw is wont to do, toward the end, but there’s still plenty of zing.

Shotgun Players’ production, directed with a firm hand by Susannah Martin, is polished and full of the right kind of energy, which is to say it has sass, playfulness and satiric edge.

The only thing clunky about the two-hour, 20-minute production is the set (by Steve Decker), which looks great, but the scene changes in the cramped space involve stagehands clearing and rolling and turning and hauling. We’re so spoiled in this day of cinematic quick cuts — even in the theater — that an old-fashioned set change can seem laborious.

But it’s what’s happening on the set that matters more. Emily Jordan is delightful as Vivie Warren, the bright, well-educated daughter of Mrs. Warren (Trish Mulholland), an international success with businesses in Brussels, Vienna and other European capitals.

Vivie, raised in boarding school, hardly knows her mother, so when Kitty Warren pays a visit to her daughter’s small country cottage, certain facts are sure to come into play, facts such as this: Mrs. Warren went into the prostitution business with her sister when they were young, poor and struggling. Now they’ve mastered the immoral business world and have all the power and money they could ever want. The sister retired to a cathedral town, but Mrs. Warren, who has a great talent for managing all her “private hotels,” loves the work.

At first, when Vivie learns of her mother’s profession, she’s horrified. Then she realizes that bright, aspiring women have little choice in the business world, so she comes ’round to admire her mother’s business acumen.

But success in such a questionable business — a business that is still thriving — carries a whole lot of emotional and cultural baggage. Vivie has to decide just how involved she wants to be in her mother’s enterprise. The young woman has, after all, been the beneficiary of ill-gotten gains her entire life.

Mulholland, a Shotgun staple, always brings vivacity to the stage, but in Mrs. Warren, she has found new performance levels. She’s tough, tender, sexy, funny and extremely grounded in the reality of her character. Her scenes with Jordan are the play’s highlights because there’s so much emotion.

Martin’s entire cast is strong, with nary a weak spot in the bunch. John Mercer is suitably creepy as filthy rich aristocrat Crofts, who proposes marriage to Vivie as part blackmail, part business proposition. Her refusal of him is Shaw at his most vituperous.

Nick Sholley is Praed, a possible suitor for Vivie, and Joseph O’Malley (above with Jordan) is Frank, a country friend of Vivie’s who has his designs on her mother’s money. Both men are pitch perfect. Sholley is a compassionate prude and O’Malley is a likable scoundrel who berates his ineffectual rector father (a very funny, fuzzled Rick T. Williams) every chance he gets.

It’s not enough for Shaw to use prostitution as a pulpit for scolding an economic system that rewards immorality at every turn. He also has to throw incest into the mix. No wonder the Lord Chamberlain got his knickers in a twist when the play first appeared.

But there’s far more here than sensation. Mrs. Warren has a great line toward the end when she and Vivie are having it out: “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.”

There’s no denying the power of knowing how the system works and working it for all it’s worth. But Shaw asks, and it’s still the question we need to ask every day: At what cost?

Mrs. Warren’s Profession continues through April 27 at the Ashby Playhouse, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $17-$25. Call 510-841-6500 or visit for information.

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