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Pre-feminist manifesto: (l-r) Elbrick and Mark Nelson in Mrs. Warren’s Profession.

The Tramp Is a Lady

By Ralph Hammann

Mrs. Warren’s Profession

By George Bernard Shaw, directed by Anders Cato

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through Sept. 1

A singular genius who saw though pretense and hypocrisy, George Bernard Shaw is needed now more than ever before. Shaw looked out on the world, saw socioeconomic and political injustice and wrote plays and other salvos that are as relevant today as they ever were. Part of his genius lay in his ability to find a worthy target, create complex arguments that thoroughly considered multiple points of view, and then create believable characters who lived the ideas. Far from being mere polemical mouthpieces for Shaw, the characters engage us, and we vicariously live the repercussions of the ethical/moral choices the characters make. He wrote to entertain, educate and effect change.

And he often did it through the most imaginative and controversial of means, as in Mrs. Warren’s Profession, which closed on opening night in New York City, with the cast being arrested.

This is because of the nature of Mrs. Warren’s profession, and it is not disclosing too much here to reveal that she got her start in life as a prostitute. That may have offended Victorian audiences in itself, but Shaw allows her an excellent defense of her actions. Then he goes several complications further, and by the end of the play he has drawn highly unfavorable parallels to commerce and industry, corporations and politicians, and succeeds in highly original fashion to create one of the theater’s most stunning feminist heroes in the character of Mrs. Warren’s astonishing daughter, Vivie Warren.

As the play begins, Vivie has no idea as to the nature of her absent mother’s occupation, profits from which have paid for Vivie’s education and upper-class lifestyle. When she finds out, Vivie, a very proper, prudish and proud young woman, has her foundations shaken. But this is just a prelude to the climax where she will have the very essence of her conscience, values and courage put to the test in a final confrontation between mother and daughter

With Anders Cato’s astute direction, the characters come fully to life and Shaw’s issues are delivered with intelligence, passion and clarity without ever sounding didactic.

Walter Hudson is scarily effective as Sir George Crofts, a consummate heel and the smiling embodiment of corporate evil who keeps the machinery of social oppression well-oiled to keep himself well-heeled.

Stephen Temperley humorously bumbles about without resorting to stereotype as the hypocritical clergyman, while Randy Harrison plays his useless, spoiled son, Frank, with a persuasive charm that, aside from his Adonis-like handsomeness, is his chief means of survival. But Harrison, who seems to improve on excellence each successive year at BTF, provides dimension in also emphasizing the humanity Shaw has given him.

Lisa Banes is a dynamic Mrs. Warren, who unlike some, retains the beauty that once got her into her profession as an escape from a worse fate in mills and factories. Resplendent in Olivera Gajic’s rich costumes, Banes finds a perfect blend of elegance and earthiness as she confidently rides out Shaw’s word storm.

The most complex role, however, is that of Vivie, and Xanthe Elbrick is splendid as Shaw’s vital protagonist. Vivie must travel a great arc as she grows from an energetically self-assured youth into a daughter who softens with doubt and compassion only to toughen into a pioneer feminist. Completely natural in her beauty, Elbrick continually projects an alert intelligence that could care less about that beauty. When her education is complete, she becomes the consort battleship to which Henry Higgins ultimately compares Eliza Doolittle.

Aided by Carl Sprague’s set, which mixes theatricalism with selective realism, and Dan Kotlowitz’ lighting, which ranges from the pastoral to the expressionistic, Cato expertly navigates the play from the sunlit country to the darkness of industrial London. Most impressive are the startling scene changes effected by eight factory girls choreographed as cogs in a machine driven by the dynamo of Scott Killian’s exciting and invaluable original musical score and sound design. Occasionally a worker will pause to consider an existence beyond. Brilliant.

Late Masterpiece

The Autumn Garden

By Lillian Hellman, directed by David Jones

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through Aug. 26

I am nearly speechless at the wit, construction and power of Lillian Hellman’s writing in this late, very neglected drama about aging, lying and emotional blackmail set in a resort town on the Gulf of Mexico. What at first seems as if it might be a study in decay along the lines of Tennessee Williams, very quickly becomes all Hellman at her sharpest, most comic, most rueful and most brilliant. It is loaded with richly developed scenes in which Hellman puts fully dimensional characters through various permutations and exciting collisions that expose their lies and illusions. The process of watching it becomes compulsive, so much so that when it nears the end of its nearly 165 minutes (two 10-minute intermissions included), one is not ready to have it end. This is not because it feels incomplete; it’s because one so seldom is afforded the company of genius.

The plot and plottings are far too complex to explain here, but the gist of it concerns a slowly moldering Southern mansion, the Tuckerman guesthouse, in which Constance Tuckerman (Allison Janney) is trying to preserve vestiges of an era of decorum that is inexorably slipping away. That is to say, she is trying to save the illusion of her youth, an action that is also informed by her attempt to give her French niece, Sophie (Mamie Gummer), the sort of aristocratic upbringing she would miss in postwar France of 1949. The importance of youth is also reflected in Constance’s reluctance to see her former beau, Nick Denery (John Benjamin Hickey), for the parasitic bounder that he is, as opposed to the great artist she would have him be.

The other characters all deal with the problem of the sense of meaninglessness that is brought on by an ever more acute awareness of the fact that one is going to die. Hellman is concerned with the accounting for wasted lives and the lies we tell ourselves to help us get through the day.

Janney is, of course, excellent as she finely hones the nuances of her character. Part of her achievement lies in the fact that she recedes into the ensemble; she doesn’t for a minute try to command the stage, but shares all graciously and is all the more powerful for doing so.

Periodically there are performances that tend to inspire one to want to leap onto the stage to strangle the actor as opposed to the annoying character. Not so with Hickey’s portrait of an artist as a loathsome man. The proof in Hickey’s authoritative performance lies in its uncomfortable depth.

As Mary, the family matriarch, Elizabeth Franz wrests every drop of acid from her lines, resulting in more laughter than one could possibly have guessed. She also grounds the play. It is in this character that the author’s voice rings most familiarly with both wit and unvarnished wisdom.

Finally, there is Gummer, whose physical similarity to her mother, Meryl Streep, is stunning. Indeed, her skill with a French accent, which accents her difference and seeming fragility in a strange and volatile environment, puts one uncannily in mind of Streep. Watching Gummer evolve from a nervously deferential girl into a young woman with spine and surprising resourcefulness is one of the production’s greatest delights.

The picture of these lives in collapse or near-collapse is both devastating and endlessly fascinating as directed by Jones with a dream cast in this tight production. In choosing The Autumn Garden, Roger Rees does an invaluable service in rescuing a forgotten masterpiece from obscurity.

—Ralph Hammann


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