In George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession,’ a daughter is confronted with some hard truths about her mother and the world

It’s always a treat to step into the time machine that is Germinal Stage — a theatre company that lovingly produces classic plays for Colorado audiences.

This fall, Germinal takes on George Bernard Shaw’s intense, family-driven morality play Mrs. Warren’s Profession. It’s an excellent production of a searing yet funny drama running through Nov. 9 at the John Hand Theatre.

The show features Germinal newcomer Carol Bloom as Kitty Warren, a former prostitute who, it turns out, has found great success running a string of brothels around Europe with her business partner Sir George Crofts (Stephen R. Kramer). She’s been keeping her one daughter Vivie back in London, supporting her with the funds she needed to grow up well cared for and educated, but she’s never much bothered to visit or write.

Until now. With Vivie finished with school and now at work, Kitty wants to check in and also introduce her to her friend Praed (Gary Leigh Webster). Praed is a successful architect and art lover who Kitty hopes might make some introductions for Vivie — a tough, pragmatic young woman whose focus on “the mathematics” seems to have stripped her of the ability to enjoy life very much.

I was delighted to see back on stage the magnetic Hannah Lee Ford as Vivie, along with Greg Palmer as her problematic love interest Frank Gardner. This is a pair who found such excellent chemistry together in last spring’s Germinal production of Noël Coward’s Hay Fever. But while that play had them going for laughs as upper-class British twits, this one has them embroiled in some heavy-duty domestic politics.

Shaw loved to scratch at the surface of polite society to expose the less-savory elements beneath, and Mrs. Warren’s Profession is a perfect example.

Limited options for women

For Shaw, prostitution wasn’t so much a moral failing as it was a stark reality for many women back then (the play was written in 1893). Choices were limited to finding a husband or working as a domestic servant or in some factory for a pittance, so prostitution offered a more lucrative and potentially more freeing option for some.

Vivie, an insulated prude, is nonplussed to discover not only the fact that her mother used to be a prostitute but that she’d gone on to become a madam. But when Kitty takes the time to tell her daughter the story of how she arrived there, it softens her stance and they have a brief moment of accord.

This is Shaw addressing the plight Victorian society put women in, where their choices were limited and how selling one’s body could seem a better option than working 10 hours a day in a factory for a few pence a week (with perhaps some lead poisoning to boot).

While Kitty and Vivie are getting along, the various men banging around their lives cause all kinds of problems. Sir George thinks it’d be an excellent idea for Vivie to marry him — despite the fact that he’s many years older than her. Kramer is great in this role, slithering about the stage in his knickers and waistcoat sniveling about his great wealth and what a wonderful husband he’d be.

Vivie dismisses him out of hand, but she’s not wild about Frank, either. He may be good-looking enough and at least her age, but he hasn’t got a sou to his name and his father has made clear that the Bank of Dad is officially closed.

Frank’s father, the Rev. Samuel Gardner, is the local rector beautifully played by Dan Hiester. The actor has flowing gray hair, a waistcoat-straining girth and a slurry, gravelly voice that’s a work of art in itself (think Barney Frank with a British accent). The reverend is a pillar of rectitude eager to inform others — particularly Frank — of their faults. But we soon learn that he was, back in the day, one of Kitty’s johns — and an infatuated one at that.

Kitty find it hilarious that Sam is now a rector, and he’s got to do some work to keep her from blabbing too much about the past while also trying to keep his wife out of her way. Watching him twist and turn as his past crowds his present is a joy to behold.

In the middle of it all is Praed, a successful architect and long-time friend of Kitty’s who, at least according to him, never sampled her wares. And while he may have some designs on Vivie, he doesn’t think he’d get very far and instead presents himself as a mentor of sorts, trying to interest her in travel and the arts. (He may as well be talking to a stump in that regard.)

The blowup

Shaw’s mastery as a playwright is on full display in the second act, when he takes what could be more of a comedy and pushes it hard into darker territory. All of the characters need each other in one way or another, but their actions repeatedly push them apart. At the center of it is Ford, who’s high-pitched voice and well-wrought British accent make every one of Vivie’s lines well worth listening to. She’s a dynamo with a barrage of lines aimed at preserving her own ideas of the world as she uses her intelligence to incorporate all of the new information being flung at her.

But learning that her mother once resorted to prostitution to support herself is much different than discovering that it’s still a thriving business. That’s a bridge too far, and Vivie shows how a young woman ignored all her life by her mother can fairly easily turn a very, very cold shoulder to her only family. Kitty, for her part, has gotten to an age where she genuinely wants to have a relationship with her daughter, if for no other reason than to care for her in her dotage.

Vivie isn’t having any of it, and the play ends with her alone in a darkening room as all of the people who have suddenly whirled into her life simply whirl back out.

As directed by Laura Cuetara, Germinal’s production is spare and simple, with the emphasis on the language. The only real adornments on stage come in the form of the costumes by Sallie Diamond, which are nicely done. My only concern was the lighting, which seemed overly dark, but I should point out that I saw a preview; opening night is Oct. 18.

This play may be more than 100 years old, but the problem of gender disparity is alive and well today, making Mrs. Warren’s Profession as relevant as ever. There are still many parts of the world where sex work can be the best option for young women, and society’s ability to quietly condone it while outwardly shaming those who pursue that line of work is also still, unfortunately, a thing.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession pushes us to confront those disparities while also presenting a very human set of characters with more basic needs for compassion, friendship, family and belonging. That most of them leave without much progress on those fronts makes it something of a tragedy, albeit one with a fair number of laughs.

There’s a note in the program saying Germinal Stage is going on hiatus after this show ends. Don’t miss the chance to see one of Denver’s theatrical gems strut its stuff with this superb production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession.