Revelations drop like bombs in Mrs. Warren’s Profession, George Bernard Shaw’s witty yet lethal attack on conventional morality, now at Washington Stage Guild for an all-too-brief run.
The play—banned in London and New York when it opened more than a century ago—is as shocking today as it was then. It’s also a reminder that Shaw’s work, though infrequently performed, includes some of the best-written scenes in the canon.
One reason for the rarity nowadays is that literary plays, like this one, can be very demanding. The Stage Guild, which describes GBS as its “signature playwright,” is one of the few companies capable of drawing out all the nuance—the humor along with the horror—in the script.
The play opens with Vivie—the supremely confident daughter of the title’s Mrs. Warren—studying for a licensing exam in the garden of a cottage in Sussex. Played with tremendous verve by Rachel Felstein, Vivie has just graduated from Cambridge, with honors in mathematics (a rare achievement for a woman in the 1890s); she yearns to become an actuary and study law.
In fact, she could be the poster girl for the modern woman, capable of dictating her own destiny.
However, her mother, Kitty Warren, has different ideas. Lynn Steinmetz, a doyenne of the Washington stage, displays an extraordinary range in the role of the not-so-doting mama who—following a long and mysterious absence abroad—descends on the cottage, determined to arrange her daughter’s marriage to a gentleman of substance.
Vivie, of course, has no such interest. She considers marriage unnecessary, since—being an educated woman—she can make her own way. More to the point, she is madly in love with Frank, the vicar’s son, a romantic hero saddled with gambling debts and a disinclination to work.
Apart from the young lovers, who cuddle and coo whenever they can, all the characters start out as comic figures, straight out of Shakespeare or central casting. Kitty Warren is the bawdy mistress, Sir George Crofts (Carl Randolph) is the wealthy-but-sinister suitor, Mr. Praed (Peter Boyer) is the kindly friend. and the Reverend Samuel (R. Scott Williams) is the pious parson.
But nobody is quite what they seem, and bit by bit—thanks to the brilliance of Shaw and the talent of director and cast—everyone is revealed, unmasked, as someone entirely different.
Kitty, by her own admission, is a vulgarian. Forced by poverty into prostitution—the fate of many a poor woman at the time—she is proud of her success at having raised a daughter to be a lady. Uneducated, she is nevertheless a good businesswoman and an honest one.
Similarly, Sir George, whose role is villainous at the start, is more honest than feckless Frank, who is really looking for a rich woman who will support him and his gambling habits.
The laugh-out-loud comedy of the beginning gradually spins its way into tragedy. Acts I and II set the stage, literally, for subsequent discovery as the older men speculate about who—among the three of them—might be the missing father of the heroine.
Vivie’s stubborn idealism reveals her as a hypocrite of the first order, and Kitty’s admission—that she likes her work—is a bow to reality. The two women, seeming opposites, are much alike. Both, in the end, derive self-esteem, pleasure, and, yes, even money from their work.
“Money’s money,” says Sir George, in a line that could well sum up the play, along with his own (and Shaw’s) belief that prostitution is just a business, no worse than any other.
The sets—coordinated by Megan Holden—are lovingly detailed. Acts I and II take place in Vivie’s garden, where the traditional ivy-covered bower and tall privacy hedge stand in contrast to the stacks of books, a rusty bicycle, and some folding lawn chairs that threaten to annihilate anyone who dares to sit in them.
Act III is set in the rectory garden, where the books and bicycle are gone, replaced by religious artifacts and the exterior of a restored 13th-century church. In Act IV, the country gardens are gone. Instead, we are in a wood-paneled office in Chancery Lane, dimly lit by a stained glass window. Here is where two tough-minded women will cut the cords that bind them.
Sigrid Johanessdottir’s costumes are spectacular and highly evocative. They reflect the dandyism of Frank and Mr. Praed, the formality of Sir Crofts, and the churchiness of the vicar. Kitty’s costumes take the cake, with flamboyant flounces at the outset and widow’s weeds at the end.
This production is a milestone for both the company and the cast. Mrs. Warren’s Profession was produced by the Stage Guild in 1991, when the company was just five years old. Michael Rothhaar—then as now—directed, and Lynn Steinmetz, who was Vivie in the earlier version, is now Kitty. Will Rothhaar, the son of Michael, is Frank; he and Rachel Felstein were childhood friends.
Running Time: Two hours 35 minutes, including two intermissions.
Mrs. Warren’s Profession plays through March 27, 2022, presented by Washington Stage Guild performing at the Undercroft Theatre inside the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($50–$60), call (202) 900-8788 or purchase online.
COVID Safety: Masks are required at all times in the theater; proof of vaccination must be shown at the door. The Stage Guild’s complete Health and Safety Policy is here.
Lynn Steinmetz (Kitty Warren)
Rachel Felstein (Vivie Warren)
Carl Randolph (Sir George Crofts)
Scott Williams (Rev. Samuel Gardner)
Peter Boyer (Mr. Praed)
Will Rothhaar (Frank Gardner)
Megan Holden—Scenic Design Coordinator
Laura Giannarelli, one of the founders of Washington Stage Guild, is the assistant stage manager. (Other founders include Steinmetz, Bill Largess, and Steven Carpenter.)