Review: Mrs. Warren’s Profession (Sterling Studio Theatre)

Mrs. Warren's Profession SSTC2

Mrs. Warren’s Profession, about a mother’s work in prostitution, is playing at Toronto’s Sterling Studio Theatre

Mrs. Warren’s Profession is George Bernard Shaw’s examination of sex, money and morality. Kitty Warren’s occupation is, as the familiar parlance goes, the “oldest profession”. The timing of Sterling Studio Theatre’s production could not have been better; it comes on the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Canada’s anti-prostitution laws.

Just to clarify: prostitution itself has never been illegal here in Canada, just the activities that surround it—brothels, public solicitation and making a living at it. These are now legal, opening up the possibility of safer working conditions (although new legislation is still pending). And, while attitudes towards the industry have shifted in a positive direction, the stigma remains. Mrs. Warren’s plight is still resonant.

When Shaw wrote this play in the 1890s, women were significantly more marginalized. In his view, prostitution was caused not by moral decay, but by the systemic undervaluing of women; without proper opportunities (and adequate financial compensation), the poorest of them were made quite desperate. But deeper than the politics of it, the heart of the story lies in the rift between mother and daughter as they struggle to reconcile their opposing principals.

Kitty Warren is a middle-aged woman who has spent most of her life building up a prostitution ring in order to provide for her daughter, Vivie. She strives to afford her the financial means to be independent of oppressive social strictures. Vivie is clever, head-strong and has no interest in romance or any other flights of fancy. She also strives for independence, but on her own terms.

The drama between them unfolds during Vivie’s break between school and career, when she is introduced to a couple of her mother’s friends—an artist, Mr. Praed, and Sir George Crofts (who turns out to be mother’s business partner). Thrown into the works, is a charming young opportunist—Frank Gardner—determined to leech off her wealth. After having learned the truth of what financed her academic opportunities, Vivie first admires her mother, but then rejects her for the sake of her own self-respect.

Shaw was a harsh critic of the social injustices towards women that presented Kitty Warren with scant options—sell her body, marry for money or submit to drudgery for puny wages. But he captured, within the character, a profound dignity. She is a shrewd business-woman who took control of her life and resources. She raised an equally self-sufficient daughter, only to have their relationship strained by their opposing ethics.

The time and place of this production are vague. This is actually a strong dramatic choice. Director Robert Tsonos has blended turn of the century Britain with present day Canada. The actors’ accents are Canadian and the costuming is modern, but with a slight hint of older English fashions. As he stated in an interview for The Charlebois Post, Tsonos has mirrored both time periods in order to juxtapose the social climate of Shaw’s day with our own. The technique is effective.

Malcolm Taylor (Mr. Praed), Richard Beaune (Crofts), and David Frisch (Reverend Gardner) give standard yet solid performances. They provide a sturdy backdrop for the dramatic fireworks that burst forth from these three: Deborah Tennant (Kitty Warren), Caroline Millen (Vivie Warren) and Aris Tyros (Frank Gardner).

Though amusing as she reacts to the more extreme behaviour of the other characters, Millen doesn’t get the chance to shine until the final act, when she confronts her mother and brutally severs the bond. We see, in her final tormented moments, just how much her self-respect has cost her.

As Mrs. Warren, Tennant is stunning with her brassy portrayal. She’s like a force of nature. She is simultaneously funny, intimidating and tenderhearted. She conveys a warmth that makes the character’s domineering personality quite agreeable. Her heartbreaking final exit hit me like a ton of bricks.

Tyros completely blindsided me with his passionate portrayal of Frank. When I read the play, I found the character (with all his cheek) to be moderately amusing, but not nearly so sympathetic and compelling as Tyros has made him. It is quite disheartening to watch as circumstances finally extinguish the sprightly fire in his eyes, which is remarkable given the fact that his intentions (when revealed) are so loathsome.

While the performances are captivating, the staging is sometimes awkward—particularly when the whole cast is present. The Sterling Studio is long and narrow, with the stage usually being at one of two ends. For this production, the stage and audience are stretched length-wise across the venue. At times, the narrow playing space restricts the naturalism of the blocking.

All things considered, Mrs. Warren’s Profession is another excellent production by the Sterling Studio.

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Photo of Deborah Tennant and Caroline Millen by Artjom Gilz