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Mrs. Warren's Profession

Review by Jane Ledwell

When my mother was in school, she learned French from books: reading, writing, and parsing without hearing or pronouncing the language. When I was in school, I learned plays and classical theatre on the page. I have read and studied (and even taught) more plays-as-text than I have seen performed. Before last night, the closest I ever came to seeing George Bernard Shaw on stage was a Colonel Gray High School production of My Fair Lady (adapted from Shaw’s Pygmalion) in the early 1980s. Professional, non-musical theatre has been infrequently available to me here on the Island. But languages are meant to be spoken and heard. And theatre is meant to be played.

This is why I am so whole-heartedly grateful for the Watermark Theatre. 

Mrs. Warren’s Profession is a contretemps between a formidable madam, her somewhat ridiculous entourage of courtiers, and her headstrong and ambitious daughter. The 1893 play was banned from performance at the turn of the 20th century, and it speaks volumes that in 2017, I can’t name the secret of Mrs. Warren’s profession without placing myself on one or the other side of an unbridgeable divide between those who call it “sex work” and those who call it “prostitution.”

As the daughter, Vivie Warren, Leah Pritchard is forthright and no-nonsense, a lovely surprise from an actor with natural comedic instincts and a flair for nonsense. As her mother, Mrs. Warren, Gracie Finley is every bit the old pro. The men range from ironical youth (Jordan Campbell as Frank Gardiner) to dissipated, hypocritical age (Paul Whelan as his father, Rev. Samuel Gardiner). Ian Deakins as Sir George Crofts, Mrs. Warren’s grasping business partner, is properly seedy and unpleasant, and the standout performance for us was Jerry Getty, radiating kindness and good sense as Mrs. Warren’s friend Praed, the moral core of the play.

Direction by Robert Tsonos is very faithful to Shaw (no playwright is more bullying than Shaw about his text—he barks from beyond the grave to miss a line at your peril or to deviate from his stage directions on pain of death). As such, the words—so many words from Mr. Shaw—are delivered with intelligence and sensitivity, at the expense sometimes of movement. 

The sets (William Layton) and lighting (Renee Brode), as always at the Watermark, highlight the strengths of both the space and the actors. 

The performance, while blocked well for the Watermark’s thrust stage, with care for the audience seated on all three sides, is physically stilted. The beautiful costumes by Bonnie Dekin, which have to be perfect when the audience is so close, are indeed perfect, and yet need to be more animated with the physical manners of Shaw’s time.

Like hearing a language you’ve only read, seeing a play performed that you’ve only read takes a lot of mental energy: it engages the brain in constant, tiny acts of translation and self-questioning. I wait for the moment that the jumble of sounds and images becomes seamless with the text, and silences my mental murmuring, and in this production, that occurs in the final act, when the performances move beyond the text—and most move the audience. This is language of theatre alive: so much better than black lines on dry paper, experienced alone.

—Select dates at Watermark Theatre. Tickets/info at watermarktheatre.com.

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