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Call Me Madam 

Mom runs a cathouse in Mrs. Warren's Profession.

Dorothy Silver and Bernadette Clemens shine amid Shaw's peculiar family dynamic.
  • Dorothy Silver and Bernadette Clemens shine amid Shaw's peculiar family dynamic.
One of the small, dark fears that occurs to anyone who has brought a child into the world is this: What if I can't stand her -- or vice versa -- when she's all grown up? What happens when the baby of Sierra Club parents starts wearing O'Reilly Factor T-shirts? As hard as we try to inculcate our own values and preferences, our offspring have a disturbing tendency to seek their own paths. And sometimes, the worst-case scenario is when an adult child actually remembers one of your lessons in time to throw it back in your face.

This kind of parent-child dysfunction is at the heart of Mrs. Warren's Profession, written over a century ago by George Bernard Shaw, but still packing topical punch with its exploration of the economic upside of prostitution and the independence of women in a patriarchal society. Although the script bears the imprint of Shaw's tendency to wordiness (which came naturally to the former soap-box orator and polemicist), a strong and polished Beck Center cast drives the action forward.

Mrs. Kitty Warren, a feisty lady decked out in flashy 1902 duds, has returned from her far-flung business trips to meet up with her grown daughter Vivie, who's been raised in the isolating environment of private schools. A somber and serious student, Vivie is a crack mathematician about to embark on a career involving eyeshades and ledgers full of numbers. A far cry from her mother's profession, since Kitty operates a string of cathouses across Europe.

These occupational discrepancies are just the first chinks in this engrossing relationship, which Shaw allows to evolve over the four days the play encompasses. Vivie is initially shocked by her mother's chain of brothels, but Kitty is unashamed -- even proud of her accomplishments. Far from being passionate about for-profit boffing ("It's not work any woman would do for pleasure, goodness knows!"), Kitty views the oldest profession as a wise way for women to earn and save money, independent of the control of men.

Of course, this conceit isn't as shocking as it was when it first hit the boards in England, but there's still plenty of zip in Shaw's witty pen. And when Kitty tries to draw Vivie closer, the daughter understandably repels her, asking pointedly, "Who are you? What are you?" But nothing is simple in this telling, especially since Vivie also has to deal with an eager young suitor, Frank Gardner, and an older lothario named George Crofts, who tries to sweep the budding accountant off her feet with promises of wealth when he croaks. And lurking beneath it all is a secret of crossed bloodlines that could trash everyone's plans.

Director Scott Plate keeps his eye on the ball, speeding his charges through some of Shaw's denser paragraphs so they can play the beats when the energy is arcing between and among the characters. Dorothy Silver is a treat as the acid-tongued Kitty, defending her lifestyle with sarcasm and undeniable logic as she attempts to pursue a relationship with Vivie. Choosing to play Kitty as a sort of wisecracking Golden Girl, occasionally hopping up on a table and swinging her feet as she speaks, Silver is kittenish and adorable.

Bernadette Clemens is a powerful presence as Vivie, cutting through the palaver and pretensions all around her with an arched eyebrow and a thorny attitude. This woman claims not to care about beauty or romance, but Clemens reveals her softer side in a tender scene with Frank (a boyishly brash Nick Koesters) and, for a while, with her mother. In one of the best scenes, Jeffrey Grover, as the cringingly aggressive Crofts, tempts Vivie with dreams of riches, but the confident woman stops him by dryly observing: "I suppose you think you're getting on famously with me." In smaller roles, Reuben Silver is amusing as the blustery father of Frank, while Michael Regnier brings a bit too much rigid intensity to the artistic family friend Mr. Praed.

Apart from all the plotting bric-a-brac that Shaw trots out with the secondary characters, the compelling relationship is that between Kitty and Vivie. This comes to a head in a final scene that's memorable for the trading of emotional roundhouse punches between these two remarkably similar but profoundly different women. Kitty nails her daughter: "I know a pious, selfish woman when I meet her." But Vivie, raised by surrogates to have strong ethical roots, finds that her moral center requires her to remain true to herself.

Even though Silver's appealing interpretation of Kitty inevitably softens this ultimate showdown, the power of Shaw's words is undeniable and riveting, and this show makes for a fascinating journey.

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