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Telling the unvarnished truth is usually a recipe for disaster, and no one knew it better than George Bernard Shaw. British society in his day, he wrote, had “agreed to keep up a national pretense that black spots in human nature are white, and we enforce the convention by treating any person who betrays his consciousness of them…as a prurient person and an enemy of public morals.”

It was exactly that sort of “national pretense” that Shaw debunked in his famously controversial Mrs. Warren’s Profession, wherein he places the title character’s career choice on a par with the daily labors of the bourgeoisie. With its defiantly worldly sensibility and its scathing attacks on the subjugation and exploitation of women in Victorian society, the play isn’t so much a comedy as an uncommonly clever exercise in political theory. The heroine undeniably buys into her era’s (and Shaw’s) notions about female sexuality, but she labors under no illusions as to the chances her culture affords her for fiscal security: “The only way for a woman to provide for herself decently is for her to be good to some man that can afford to be good to her.” Matrimony, as she observes, is incidental to the equation.

It’s all very brittle and bright—and it’s too bad Olney Theatre’s new production isn’t as smart as it is lavish. Lavish it certainly is: Costumier Mary Ann Powell provides luxurious fashions (brocade gowns and spiffy, long-skirted pinstripe suits for the women, natty three-piece tweed numbers and Inverness cloaks for the men), and Olney’s extravagant set spins and slides and vanishes upward as though designer James Wolk has mistaken Shaw’s English countryside for Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard.

To be fair, Mrs. Warren’s two primary characters—a rigidly high-minded young woman and her mother, an alternately hard-nosed and sentimental creature who turns out to have acquired her considerable fortune as a prostitute and madam—aren’t among Shaw’s most human creations. They’re primarily vehicles for the playwright’s socialist polemics, and it must take quite an effort to give them life. The actresses at Olney, sadly, have resorted to portrayals so broad as to be almost vaudevillian. Katherine Leask, as the well-educated Miss Warren, does occasionally have a compelling way with anger, but it’s never modulated. There’s nothing like a range of emotion on display, and so a character who ought to inspire pity is alienating instead.

The redoubtable Halo Wines is simply overparted in the title role, unable to settle on a coherent characterization. As a result, her Mrs. Warren is alternately giddy, sensible, forbidding, uneasily defensive, and worldly-wise, but never anything for long—and never secure in her own dignity, which is essential if the play is to be a success.

“The word prostitution should either not be used at all, or else applied impartially to all persons who do things for money that they would not do if they had other assured means of livelihood,” Shaw wrote in a published commentary on another of his plays. Richard Bauer voices a similar sentiment as Sir George Croft, the arrogant aristocrat who backs Mrs. Warren’s establishment and hopes for Miss Warren’s hand, but he mugs so outrageously as he delivers it—indeed, he’s so distractingly hammy throughout the play—that it’s hard to take him seriously. As he’s supposed to be making one of the playwright’s crucial points, that’s a bad thing.

Bob Kirsh, as Miss Warren’s impoverished beau, and Douglas Simes, as an effete friend of the family, give performances that are positively restrained by comparison—but only by comparison—and Tom Carson sputters and fulminates most egregiously as a priest with an intemperate past. Director John Going really should have reined them all in. Still, Shaw’s 100-year-old ideas about what constitutes morality are still surprisingly revolutionary, and they can’t be eclipsed by a little overindulgent acting. As theater, Olney’s production is at best a moderate success, and only by virtue of the sumptuous design. As politics, it’s much more bracing than what passes for debate these days.CP