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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Production true to Shaw’s language-loving wit

If you love the English language, it’s hard not to love George Bernard Shaw.

And if you love stimulating intellectual argument, packaged expertly as a comedy-drama, it’s impossible not to love “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” especially in this strong professional production at the Actor’s Repertory Theatre.

Shaw accomplishes something in this play (and in all of his plays, really) that would spell doom for lesser playwrights. He takes an earnest social-reformer’s lecture and puts it in the mouths of his characters.

The lecture: That prostitution is caused “not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together,” as he wrote in his preface.

This theme remains relevant today, yet, still: Why doesn’t this come across as a dry sermon onstage?

Because Shaw, a former theater critic, exhibited zero tolerance for the platitudes, clichés and sentimental, maudlin conventions that make for bad, boring theater. He also had a genius for creating wholly original and memorable characters such as Miss Vivie Warren and her mother, Mrs. Kitty Warren.

Vivie, played with upright strong-mindedness by Caryn Hoaglund, is a thoroughly modern young women, and I mean modern not just for 1893, when Shaw wrote it, but modern as of today. She does not need a man to make her happy; she simply needs worthwhile work.

“I must be treated as a woman of business, permanently single and permanently unromantic,” Vivie says at one point.

Her mother, Kitty Warren, is a vastly different kind of modern woman. As played vividly by Karen Nelsen, she’s charismatic, expansive, loud, and, as one character calls her, “ever so rowdy.” She is also the proprietress of a string of brothels, a fact that drives the entire story.

The issue: The independent Vivie finally discovers that her privileged life and college education have been financed by prostitution money. She is devastated, but not for the conventional moral reasons. She is appalled that her upbringing was accomplished on the backs (in more ways than one) of the downtrodden. It’s as if discovering that the family were in the slumlord business.

Solid supporting performances come from the men in the cast: Patrick Treadway, Ron Ford, Reed McColm and especially Jon Lutyens as Vivie’s deliberately and cringingly smarmy Frank Gardner (he calls himself “Vivvum’s little boy”).

Yet this play belongs unquestionably to the two women. Hoaglund’s upright bearing and rigid body language are suited perfectly to a character determined to expunge all sentimentality from her nature, to a degree bordering on the cold. In one climactic confrontation with her sobbing mother, Vivie coolly observes, “I am not to be changed by a few cheap tears and entreaties.”

Nelsen exhibits especially fine timing with some of Shaw’s more cutting lines. When Vivie asks her mother if she’s ashamed of her profession, Nelsen pauses a beat before saying, “Well, of course, dearie, it’s only good manners to be ashamed of it.”

Nelsen turns from a lovable Auntie-Mame type character to a raging force of nature by the end. She sweeps across the stage in formidable Victorian dress, invoking a “mother’s curse” on her ungrateful daughter.

Director Michael Weaver stages the action on a round, raised stage, decorated with minimalist furniture: a few chairs, a desk, a garden swing. Characters enter down the aisles, which gives an intimate feel to the action.

The first act sometimes bogs down in Shaw’s long speeches. Yet Weaver extracts a remarkable amount of emotional fire from this play. After intermission, with the characters established, the play races past.

This is exactly what I crave in theater: Intellectual stimulation and social observation, presented with zero pandering and plenty of wit.

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