Don’t Take Your Love to Town

by Nathan Hall

Prostitution is of course both the oldest and one of the most dangerous professions. Hollywood, via unrealistic fairy tales such as 1990’s “Pretty Woman,” downplays the numerous risks involved to the point that it is viewed as a viable career option. Despite an Election Day challenge by former Gov. Ventura, the notion of legalizing and taxing sex workers is still regarded by a sizable percentage of Americans as laughable at best. The still-controversial notion that marriage is just a church-sanctioned version of hooking is the underlying premise of George Bernard Shaw’s play “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” now in revival at the Guthrie Theater.

Vivienne Benesch stars as Miss Vivie Warren, a headstrong college graduate determined to uncover the whisper-shrouded mystery behind her absentee mother, played by the scene-stealing Caitlin O’Connell. Three questionable suitors, all of whom might or might not have been former customers of her mother, are doggedly pursuing Vivie. Michael Booth plays Mr. Praed, her prissy artiste confidante and weekend anarchist. Sir George Crofts, played by Paul O’Brien, is a lecherous aristocrat who made his fortune as her mom’s pimp. Leo Kittay plays Mr. Frank Gardner, Vivie’s feckless undercover lover. Richard Ooms rounds out the cast wonderfully as Frank’s pious father, the Rev. Samuel Gardner.

Michael Yeargan’s gorgeous set design is impeccable, making country meadows transform almost magically into dark and imposing tenement housing. As silly as it might sound, the fact that even the lowly stagehands wear authentic Victorian outfits is a compelling detail.

Vivie appears at peace with the fact that her mother is a woman of ill repute, but she struggles mightily with the notion that her mother’s highly successful franchise of European cat houses are what paid for her tuition. Predictably, the rest of the community gleefully ignores the obvious hypocrisy of the situation. With a wink and a nod, they happily pay for sex in private yet condemn the act as immoral in public. O’Connell is masterful here as the guilt-ridden madam, her dialect wavering between her high society front and the rough-and-tumble cockney accent of her troubled childhood.

Shaw was oft quoted as saying that the sole difference between marriage and prostitution is the difference between union and scab labor. That type of radical idea was not usually made into four-act plays in 1900, but comrades such as D.H. Lawrence argued that censoring theater would only make pornography and madams seem that much more desirable.

Shaw is perhaps best known for writing the frolicsome “My Fair Lady,” but “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” falls much more into the realm of his bleeding-heart-on-the-sleeve socialist tracts such as “Pygmalion” and “Candida.” Shaw understood the sad reality of the so-called “working poor” more than most playwrights. More importantly, the cold, hard realities of life under capitalism remain unfit for polite conversations when the topic of reform is breached.

The historical background the play provides aids in educating the audience, an admirable feat in these brainless times. The “New British Woman” of the Victorian age was seen as mannish, overeducated and improperly dressed by the ruling class, a perception with which the emancipated Vivie struggles.

The play contains many points in common with Chekhov, specifically the closing scene of Vivie dutifully plunging headfirst into a mountain of paperwork on her desk in order to lose herself mentally in the mind-numbing escape of drudgery. The gritty themes of English whores stuck in inescapable moral dilemmas borrow from both Emma Donoghue’s recent best-selling book “Slammerkin” and Alan Moore’s graphic novel “From Hell.”

This version ultimately succeeds by staying true to the highly censored original script rather than indulging in sleazy, modern-day updates in order to guarantee titillation for the audience. Vivie is so torn over spilling the beans about her mother’s job that she cannot even bear to speak its proper name. Instead, she types it on a piece of paper but then quickly tears it to shreds. If only it was so easy to make the underlying social problems disappear.

“Mrs. Warren’s Profession” plays through Feb. 16 at the Guthrie Theater, (612) 377-2224.