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It would be tough, in the English-speaking theatrical canon, to find any playwright more unromantic than George Bernard Shaw. His view of the social arrangements of adult life in late Victorian and early 20th century Britain were quite clear in the arguments his plays made (and continue to make) about the entire subject. For him, the middle class of his era, marriage was a financial arrangement, not a romantic endeavor. For lower classes, there was simply no time for romance in the dual pushes to eke out a living and, if possible, rise out of dangerous and debilitating poverty.
This view shows up particularly in Shaw’s women. From Eliza Doolittle’s determination to achieve a safer self-sufficiency, to – in one of his most “shocking” plays at the time – Kitty Warren, who funds (albeit from a distance) the raising of her very much middle class, educated daughter by successfully operating a string of houses of prostitution on the continent, they show a specific focus on breaking social barriers and avoiding the seemingly inevitable fates of women in their time.
Indeed, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” now in repertory at A Noise Within in Pasadena, balances the “modern” middle class working woman, Vivie Warren, with her lower class, but very, if scandalously successful mother Kitty in ways which pinpoint the plight of both. For Vivie, her focus is becoming a professional. Her alternative is marriage, where she is seen as a prize mostly for the inheritance she will bring with her. For Kitty, the choice was “decent” jobs which were either at poverty wages or involved potentially deadly labor, or deciding to treat sex as the business transaction Shaw was always certain it was.
Can these two women come to an understanding which surmounts the conventional reactions of their day? In this case, being Shavian, the characters’ disconnects may not be the predictable. On the other hand, the men who are sure they know what will, or should happen, pretty much are.
Director Michael Michetti has put a liveliness of spirit into what is admittedly a particularly talky Shaw play by centering it all on character. Still, when it becomes important that you hear the points being made, one cannot help acknowledge Shaw’s tendency toward (as a friend passionate about Shaw once said) beautifully costumed panel discussions. By then, thanks to Michetti, you care enough about the people having the discussions to stop, sit and listen, as well as to absorb a few vital non-verbal moments Michetti uses to bring the play’s major point home.
This is all achievable thanks to a diverse and skilled ensemble cast. Erika Soto makes Vivie convincingly earnest in her desire to be productive in the world, with a specific sense of internal morality which makes her resolute rather than stiff, especially in relation to Kitty. Judith Scott, as Kitty, radiates the inequivocal confidence in her own decisions which underscores the entire character: a lack of apology for succeeding outside the very middle class mores she wishes upon her daughter.
As the young gentleman whose pursuit of Vivie eventually carries more the scent of the mercenary than the romantic, Adam Faison radiates a boyish charm with just the right edge of selfishness. As the profoundly ineffective rector – the young man’s father – whose concern for image diminishes him, Martin Kildare huffs about with appropriate superficiality.
Yet the greatest contrast comes from Jeremy Rabb’s Sir George, Kitty’s business partner, whose values lie solely in a pragmatic capitalism, seeing even the people with which he surrounds himself primarily with an eye to profit. This in balance to Peter James Smith’s Mr. Praed, Kitty’s earnest friend, given a gentle warmth which emphasizes the genuine feeling and concern which balances well against the self-interest of the other men of the piece.
All work in a seamless flow on Sara Ryung Clement’s elemental set, which allows quick movement of setting when needed, and emphasizes the people and the words in important ways.
Shaw is never as easy as one would think. Though “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” caused demonstrations and legal actions upon its premieres, both in Britain and the the US, when one sits and listens to what is actually being spoken – particularly in the final scenes – what the play has to say about class, culture, women’s roles and parental ambition proves as powerful today as it was a century ago: less shocking on a superficial level, but still disturbing in a more elemental way.
For this reason, not to mention the sheer understanding that a Shaw play is a treat for the intellect, ANW’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” is worth a look. Go to listen. Go to ponder. This show plays in repertory with “A Tale of Two Cities” and “The Madwoman of Chaillot”.
What: “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” When: Through November 18: 7:00 p.m. October 22 and November 12, 7:30 p.m. November 2, 8 p.m. October 28 and November 3, 17 and 18, with matinees at 2 p.m. October 22 and 28 and November 12 and 18 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.anoisewithin.org
It is fascinating how a play can become so familiar one can forget where it came from. Certainly, everyone knows that they know George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” but mostly because most have seen “My Fair Lady,” the highly romanticized musical (later film) based on the play. Yet, the original play was not about romance, but about societal equality and intellectual independence. Now, at the Pasadena Playhouse, one can experience a profound and polished production of Shaw’s original play, as originally written. For those sure they are familiar with the piece, this can prove revelatory.
Of course the play – whose name comes from the Greek myth of a sculptor who falls in love with his own creation – has a general plot which needs little explanation. The obnoxiously spoiled, and rather childish linguistics expert Henry Higgins, aided by the somewhat fusty Col. Pickering, takes on the task of transforming one Eliza Doolittle, a cockney street vendor, into a young lady who can pass as a duchess at a society event. What he doesn’t count on is Eliza’s intellect and free will, and her determination not to be seen as an object. In the end, the play becomes a condemnation of the image of women in late Victorian society – one which resonates remarkably clearly into the 21st Century.
Director Jessica Kubzansky has chosen to go back to the original script, leaving off later additions of embassy balls and semi-romantic returns. This is, frankly, extremely satisfying, as I have personally rebelled against the ending given in “My Fair Lady” since I first saw it on stage as a pre-teen. Shaw’s best works are often intellectual discussions with a plot, and here the complex and immensely satisfying battle of wits between Eliza and Higgins gets to stand on its own, making the point Shaw was actually out to make. That makes the play important again.
Paige Lindsey White makes a convincing Eliza. Her body language changes subtly as she matures, and her beauty proves equally subtle: a sharpness softened by care and carriage. This makes the transformation particularly satisfying, and (despite an English professor long ago who claimed it impossible) quite convincing. Bruce Turk makes Higgins both articulately intellectual and ridiculously childish – more a brat than a hermit. It works wonderfully well, adding a layer of comedy a more grounded character could not. Stan Egi gives Col. Pickering a decidedly unaware feel, as if he exists mostly on manners rather than intellectual rigor. All three give a lovely balance to the entire production.
Also worthy of high praise are Ellen Crawford, far less shockable and far more fatalistically practical than usual as Higgins’ housekeeper. Time Winters makes Eliza’s father less goofy and far more disturbed by his change of fortunes, and it works. Most particularly, Mary Anne McGarry gives an aura of wisdom and worry – the articulate view of a woman with a deep understanding of the limitations of womanhood – as Higgins’ mother. Alex Knox and Carolyn Ratteray each have deeply comic moments as Freddy Eynsford-Hill and his sister Clara, while Lynn Milgrim, as their mother, becomes symbolic of the comparatively piteous condition of a poor and widowed society woman.
Still, the unifying force and the significant vision are Kubzansky’s. She takes characters which can easily become prosy, and meshes them into an interesting blend of attitudes and desires one can truly connect with. Pacing and understanding flow easily – and that’s saying something when one speaks of Shavian works.
Stephanie Kerley Schwartz has created an elemental set which moves swiftly from scene to scene, allowing the flow of what is essentially an episodic tale to become remarkably even. Leah Piehl’s costuming holds fairly true to the period, and provides subtle personality clues along the way.
In short, this “Pygmalion” gets it right, start to finish. This play rarely has a chance to stand on its own, and project the message Shaw was trying to get across. This time, it does, and that is pure delight for anyone who loves a good intellectual argument.
What: “Pygmalion” When: Through April 12, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $30 – $75, with premium seating at $125.00 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org