Madam and Grieve: Mrs. Warren is stung by her daughters denunciation. s denunciation.
Madam and Grieve: Mrs. Warren is stung by her daughters denunciation. s denunciation.

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She’s a wealthy woman; he’s a bus conductor. She lives grandly on the Continent, flitting from Brussels to Ostend to Vienna, leaving her daughter to the care of surrogates; he lives poor in Dublin, shuttling between his route and the home he shares with a spinster sister. She consorts with baronets and artists; his only real friend is the coachman who drives the bus. All Mrs. Warren and Mr. Byrne really have in common is that they’re scandals to their communities—and that they’re better, more complicated, more human people than most who would judge them.

Thus do two of D.C.’s newest theatrical offerings—one a century old, one barely a decade; one presented by the city’s big classics house, the other by a smallish company with a taste for things Irish; one a biting canonical comic drama set in Edwardian England, the other a wistful, warmhearted musical set in the ’60s—grapple with our eternal need to define ourselves by demonizing the outsider, the sinner, the Other. Banned from the stage for years, George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession scandalized London’s critics with its dissection of the economics of prostitution and the moral hypocrisies of English society when it was finally presented in 1902; in New York, it was the police rather than the theater press who responded first, with warrants for disorderly conduct targeting the entire cast of the 1905 U.S. premiere. A Man of No Importance, though its title is an homage to a similarly pointed Oscar Wilde critique of British society—and though its plot pits the Wildean “vices” of aesthetic yearning and homosexuality against the stern pieties of a devout Roman Catholic parish—disturbed critics at its 2001 premiere only to the extent that they remarked upon the notable weaknesses of its book. Maybe that’s progress, in and of itself?

Perhaps—although in Keith Baxter’s lively and surprisingly emotional staging of Mrs. Warren for the Shakespeare Theatre Company, what once couldn’t be said without censure still seems depressingly on-point: In a society with more women in the workforce than ever, but in which they still earn 20 percent less on average than men in the same jobs, there’s still a certain bite to the tale of a strong-minded woman who makes her fortune as a madam because her society offers her precious few other routes to independent success. The play is an elegantly witty broadside against a ruling class that lives richly on the backs of laborers, but offers few of them—fewer, if they’re female—a way out of poverty. What, it asks bluntly, is the difference between a pub owner who deploys a fleet of comely barmaids to keep the clientele happy and the proprietor of an upscale “private hotel” who puts her female staff to work in the bedrooms instead of the taproom? If the latter offers her employees a cut of the action and a career ladder to move up, Mrs. Warren puckishly proposes, isn’t she the better man?

Shaw, ever the cantankerous old socialist, meant less to destigmatize prostitution than to condemn British capitalism by the comparison, and in his letters he confessed a horror of his antiheroine. One of the chief delights of Baxter’s clean-lined, clear-eyed production, however, is the way the two women at the center seem like two sides of an equation, neither wholly right or wrong, neither a perfect arbiter for a complicated question.

Mrs. Warren (Elizabeth Ashley, in full-on fierce-creature mode) is a savvy animal, a woman who’s proved herself in business, who likes her work and revels in the comforts it’s earned her—she’s the capitalist ideal, in many ways. Shrewd, practical, and shamelessly manipulative in Ashley’s reading, she’s long since made her peace with her choices, developing both a healthy private contempt for what polite society publicly thinks of her and a healthy realist’s respect for the loopholes it offers as long as she pretends to care. Ashley lets us see what that’s cost her, though: She’s so hardened, so worldly, so practiced at pretense that a real relationship with her daughter is forever beyond her, though she’ll come to feel the want of it before things are done.

That daughter, by contrast, admires her mother’s grit upon learning how she bucked the system to earn her fortune. At least at first. But then this ambitious, university-educated intellectual—among the first of her kind in a country that had only recently started sending its girls to college—recoils when she discovers that the business that funded her education, far from being a regrettable part of her family’s past, is still going strong—and that it’s backed by venture capital from a “respectable” member of the landed classes, who thinks he’d be doing her a favor with an offer of marriage. In Amanda Quaid’s exquisitely controlled reading, Vivie’s disgust at the hypocrisy embedded in the whole enterprise seems both morally right and off-puttingly puritanical. It’s a good ethical call, informed by a dispassionate appraisal of the opportunities available to her generation that her mother’s never had, but it’s untempered by the charity and the human understanding that might help the two women find a way forward together.

Baxter’s production makes clearer than many the costs of that collision of generations and personalities: Shaw’s script gives us a “joyous” Vivie, settling “buoyantly” down to her work after a final break with her mother, confident that she can make her own way in the world and content with the prospect of an unsexed, loveless life centered on work. Baxter and Quaid, more sensitive to individual character than the old polemicist ever was, leave us with a soberer, more strained picture, a Vivie sitting rigid and grim at her desk, attacking her work with the fierceness of someone determined to drive doubt and despair away. She’s not wrong, this Vivie, but she’s not 100 percent happy, either—and that makes for as poignant an assessment of Mrs. Warren’s profession as I can remember.