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Mother Daughter Action

Two Very Different But Alike Women Verbally Spar in This Actress Showpiece

PRO AND CON: Lisa Bostnar and Natasha Staley share a rare simpatico moment.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 2/20/2008

Mrs. Warren's Profession

By George Bernard Shaw

At Rep Stage through Feb. 24

There's a reason Kitty Warren and her daughter Vivie can't get along. They're too much alike. Oh, sure, there are superficial differences between the parent and child in George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession. In the flawed but worthy production now at Rep Stage in Columbia, actress Lisa Bostnar allows Kitty's red curls to spill from one fashionable hat after another in much the same way that flirtatious hints tumble from her every sentence. By contrast, Natasha Staley pulls Vivie's straw-colored hair back into a severe bun and keeps her conversation as crisp and correct as an auditor's.

But these are merely two differing tactics serving the same strategy. Both mother and daughter are determined to be independent women in control of their own income and of their own opinions. If one makes her way in a world of men by charming them and the other by keeping those men at arm's length, aren't these but two paths to the same end? And don't they both achieve their goals by becoming economically self-sufficient and free to think whatever they like?

Unfortunately, they hold starkly opposed opinions about Mrs. Warren's profession, the oldest in the world. As the manager and co-owner of a string of brothels in continental Europe, Kitty has become wealthy enough to give Vivie a comfortable upbringing in England. But instead of the conventional, grateful, middle-class girl Kitty had hoped to find on her return home, she confronts a sharp, stubborn daughter all too much like the mother. Thus when Vivie finally learns the source of the money she's been living on, she is no more likely to compromise her revulsion than Kitty is likely to compromise her pride.

These are two of the best female parts in English-language theater, and Bostnar and Staley make the most of the opportunity. The sparks fly whenever they're onstage together, especially during their two big confrontations--the first when Vivie discovers her mother's past and the second when she learns her mother's current activities. Bostnar makes the bigger first impression, for her radiant presence and seeming impulsiveness seduce the audience as readily as they undo the play's male characters. We are a bit taken aback, therefore, when we catch Bostnar calculating her next move, for only then do we realize she is using her apparent sentimentality as a weapon.

But Staley's performance as Vivie is even more impressive, for she must resist every temptation to be "dramatic." No matter how outrageous Kitty's behavior, no matter how loathsome an older aristocrat's marriage proposal, no matter how flattering the attentions of the young neighbor boy, Staley has to remain steely and self-contained if we are to believe Vivie is as strong as her mother. It is thanks to this intense focus--to her refusal to score cheap, temporary reactions from the audience--that her character makes such a powerful impression in the end.

As the play begins, the 22-year-old Vivie is living in a country cottage in Surrey, awaiting her mother's annual visit. Arriving first is one of Kitty's old friends, the bohemian architect Praed. Arriving on Kitty's arm is her business partner, Sir George Crofts. Showing up soon after is Frank Gardner, the local playboy, and his father, Samuel, who is not only the local reverend but also one of Kitty's ex-lovers. Complications arise as George proposes to Vivie, Frank pursues both mother and daughter, Samuel frets over his reputation, and Praed dithers.

Director Gus Kaikkonen, who enjoys such success with the two women, stumbles badly when it comes to the men. As Praed, Michael Stebbins frequently inserts pauses into the dialogue and action. Perhaps these hesitations were meant for comic effect, but they merely open up yawning dead spaces. Nigel Reed's George never appears quite as impressive as the dazzling suits created for him by costumer Kathleen Geldard. As Samuel, Bill Largess is such a nebbish that it's impossible to imagine him sharing a bed with Kitty. Matt Jared at least brings some welcome energy to the role of Frank, if not much depth.

Shaw no doubt meant the two women to overshadow the four men in Mrs. Warren's Profession; after all, he gave Kitty and Vivie the best lines. But the playwright surely never intended the balance to be as out of whack as it is at Rep Stage. No matter how much the show drags when the men are talking, however, it soars when the women grab control. The chance to see Bostnar and Staley take possession of these two unforgettable characters--so different and yet so alike--is an opportunity not to be missed.

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