A Noise Within has once again done what it does best in George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession. It has taken a theatrical classic of centuries past and staged it as if it had been written today, and with the always edgy Michael Michetti in the director’s chair, ANW’s slogan “Classic Theatre, Modern Magic” has rarely felt more apt.

Like Shaw’s Pygmalion, Mrs. Warren’s Profession tackles social issues in the years surrounding the advent of the 20th century, though for Kitty Warren (Judith Scott), it wasn’t simply learning “proper” English that elevated her from lower class to so-called decent society. No siree bub, the road up was a good deal more scandalous for the never-wed “Mrs.” Warren,” who ascended from prostitute to high-class madam and owner of a chain of European brothels.

Mrs. Warren’s daughter Vivie (Erika Soto) remains clueless to her mother’s past. Indeed, having been educated in a series of boarding schools, young Miss Warren has had little contact with her working mum other than an occasional visit over the past twenty-two years.

As Shaw’s play begins, the two women are about to have their first meeting as adults, and as one might expect, learning of Mrs. Warren’s Profession is unlikely to sit well with the highly educated and highly moralistic Vivie.

Mother and Daughter’s entourage includes Frank Gardner (Adam Faison), a charming young scamp more interested in Vivie’s fortune than in true love; Rev. Samuel Gardner (Martin Kildare), Frank’s fuddy-duddy of a father; Sir George Crofts (Jeremy Rabb), a nattily dressed yet potentially vicious gentleman with designs on Vivie; and Mr. Praed (Peter James Smith), a rather dapper aficionado of what he calls “the Gospel of Art.”

What makes Shaw’s play hold up so well today (besides his witty, incisive dialog) is how very current its themes remain. Yes, London audiences were probably more outraged by its unapologetic focus on prostitution and the possibility of an incestuous relationship between two characters than today’s might be, but tell that to contemporary talk shows hots, soap opera writers, reality TV producers, and tabloid rags.

Add to that Shaw’s concern with the reasons behind Mrs. Warren’s (second-oldest) profession—gender inequality and the degree to which women’s options remain frustratingly limited even in today’s supposedly more enlightened world—and you’ve got a 124-year-old play that, talky as Shaw can be, still rings true in 2017.

Singer-songwriter Zarah Mahler’s stunning “Sown“ sets a modern tone even before the talk begins. So do the saturated colors of the exquisite rose-patterned backdrop Ryung Clement has given her otherwise deliberately spare scenic design. So does colorblind casting that asks us to look beyond race to the performances being delivered.

And what brilliant performances these are, beginning with Soto’s razor-sharp Vivie, whose luminous beauty makes the character’s hard-as-stone interior that much more unexpected.

Scott’s vibrant, commanding Mrs. Warren burns hot by contrast while gradually revealing the onetime “prisoner of the gutter” still lurking beneath the elegantly gowned, carefully cultivated refinement that meets the eye.

The ever fabulous Rabb’s Sir George is so blissfully unaware of how wrong he is for Vivie that his attempts to woe her are among the evening’s most amusing. Faison is so darned appealing as Frank that it’s takes a while to figure out just how surface all that boyish charm turns out to be. Smith’s deliciously fastidious (and lawn-chair-challenged) Mr. Praed and Kildare’s well-meaning but hopelessly ineffectual Reverend Gardner are performance gems as well.

Scenic designer Clement gives each of Mrs. Warren’s Profession’s four extended scenes its own distinctive look (each one a stunner) and her period costumes are every bit as gorgeous, especially when lit to striking effect by Jaimi Lee Smith. Add to this Melanie Chen Cole’s pitch-perfect sound design, Danielle Griffith’s just-right hair, wig, and makeup designs, and Erin Walley’s meticulously chosen props and you’ve got yet another ANW production design winner.

Carol Becker is assistant director. Nike Doukas is dialect coach. Gabrielle J. Bruno is stage manager and Hannah Alikhani is assistant stage manager. Sets To Go and Dani Maupin are scenic painters.

As long as women struggle to succeed in what remains far too resolutely a man’s world, George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession will still have much to say to contemporary audiences. At A Noise Within, it says it quite eloquently indeed.

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A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd, Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
October 14, 2017
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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