Is prostitution a legitimate business or an immoral exploitation of women? That question lies at the heart of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, George Bernard Shaw’s snappy family drama set in the stodgy confines of Victorian England. The story centers on a precarious reunion between recent Cambridge grad Vivie Warren (Laura Odeh) and her mother, Mrs. Kitty Warren (Dana Ivey), a successful businesswoman who has provided well for her daughter despite being away on business throughout much of Vivie’s life. After some long-overdue prodding, Vivie learns that the business her mother has been running all these years is in fact a chain of brothels — a venture Mrs. Warren invested in as a young prostitute. News of Kitty’s sordid dealings sparks a battle of ideals between the Warren women and ultimately jeopardizes their relationship.
Written in 1893, Mrs. Warren’s Profession was banned from the London stage for nearly a decade due to its “scandalous” subject matter. Behind its taboos, however, Shaw’s story took to task the hypocrisy of socially imposed gender roles, and its digs at inequality are still bitingly relevant today. Even in our era of closing wage gaps and female CEOs there’s no doubt an undercurrent of young women who will relate to Kitty Warren’s recollection of choosing a profession that offered her more freedom than any “legitimate” way of life could.
This is not to say that elements of the play don’t feel dated, particularly where Kitty’s uppity social clique is concerned. Her slimy business partner, wealthy landowner Sir George Croft (Sam Tsoutsouvas), is meant to personify the folly of capitalistic self-justification, though one can’t help but think that today Croft would probably be a revered celebrity starring in his own version of The Apprentice.
Still, Charlotte Moore’s nimble direction keeps things moving quickly enough to gloss over any rifts in the play’s timeliness. The cast, meanwhile, embraces Shaw’s Victorian vernacular with very few awkward moments. Notably strong is New York stage veteran Dana Ivey, who, as the title character, draws us in with her matriarchal rants until we feel thoroughly scolded for our prejudices. That is, after all, part of a mother’s job.