In 1894, George Bernard Shaw wrote “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” — now onstage at California Shakespeare Theater — to promote his theory that prostitution was caused not by “female depravity” but by “underpaying, undervaluing and overworking women,” which gave lower-class girls of his era few options.
Just so, the eponymous Mrs. W, when young, turned to prostitution as a way out of abject poverty.
Shaw sets up his scenario so that, following an impassioned speech justifying her life choice, Mum seems heroic to her illegitimate daughter — the educated, intellectual Vivie, who wasn’t actually raised by her mother and thus hardly knows her.
It’s not until the second half of the play that Vivie comes to a deeper, painful understanding of her mother’s true values and realizes, appalled, that she herself is implicated.
It’s hard, with our 21st-century, American sensibilities, to fully empathize with any of the characters.
The steely “fallen woman” is indeed morally challenged. The equally formidable Vivie is an arts-and-romance-hating prude. Vivie’s blithe suitor, Frank, is an opportunist and a gambler.
Two of Mrs. W’s friends (and erstwhile clients) are, respectively, a smug capitalist and a hypocritical reverend, and the third is a clueless idealist. Whom are we to admire?
As much as possible, director Timothy Near has crafted her beautifully designed Cal Shakes’ production to be meaningful to modern audiences, fleshing out nuances, extending certain moments and making sure the ending is suitably ambiguous. Little entr’acte mimed actions and gracefully choreographed dances are especially pleasing and illuminating.
And the tough and manipulative Mrs. W gets such a complex, powerful performance from Stacy Ross — who stalks about imperiously in a huge pompadour featuring a Bride-of-Frankenstein white streak — that the character is perhaps more admirable than Shaw intended.
Ross is not quite equally matched by Anna Bullard as Vivie; at least on opening night Bullard’s emotional transitions — and Shaw gives her a formidable string of them — at times lacked an organic credibility. At other times, though, Bullard is beguilingly impetuous and intense as she navigates her journey from brainy innocence to cynical certitude.
The supporting cast — Andy Murray, Rod Gnapp, Dan Hiatt and especially Richard Thieriot as a wonderfully spontaneous and charming Frank — is excellent.
Meg Neville’s costumes — particularly Mrs. W’s array of brilliantly colored, satiny gowns and oversized feathery hats — are so stunning as to sometimes compete with the actors for audience attention.
Mrs. Warren’s Profession
Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Where: Bruns Amphitheatre, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 4 p.m. Sundays; plus 2 p.m. July 31; closes Aug. 1
Tickets: $34 to $70
Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org