Feminism Onstage: Mrs. Warren’s Profession at the Shaw and The Heidi Chronicles at Soulpepper
Two sharp comedy/dramas capture women's struggles in the Victorian and baby-boom eras.
Mrs. Warren’s Profession
Royal George Theatre (85 Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake)
Runs to Oct. 23
Tickets: $25 – $117
The Heidi Chronicles
Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane)
Runs to June 18
Tickets: $32 – $94
The first and second waves of feminism have come rolling onto the stages of the Shaw Festival and Soulpepper Theatre. The first wave is represented by Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Bernard Shaw’s once-controversial play which dared to suggest to Victorian audiences that a poor woman’s best bet for financial independence was in the sex trade. The second wave is captured in the late Wendy Wasserstein’s 1989 Pulitzer Prize winner The Heidi Chronicles, which traces the victories—and continued challenges—of the late-20th-century women’s movement through the experiences of its brainy, diffident heroine.
Mrs. Warren’s Profession is one of those plays that you wish were more outdated than it is. Yes, Western women have made enormous strides forward since this 1893 work’s belated premiere—in 1902, at a private club in London, the British censor having banned its performance in public. In the developing world, however, many poor women can still identify with Shaw’s Kitty Warren, the working-class girl who realized she could make more money renting her body to strangers than risking it in a factory with unsafe working conditions.
Kitty (Nicole Underhay) considered her limited options, chose a life of prostitution, and thrived, becoming the co-owner of a string of European brothels. Determined that her own offspring shouldn’t face the same dilemmas, she used her profits to bankroll the education of her daughter back in England. Now the daughter, Vivie (Jennifer Dzialoszynski), has just graduated from Cambridge as a top scholar with, like her mother, a head for business. But she’s been kept in the dark all these years about both her father’s identity and her mother’s source of income.
Those are revealed in the course of Shaw’s play, where Vivie, a model of the newly emancipated woman, comes to discover that her freedom has been bought at the price of her mother’s pandering to male sexual appetites. At the same time, Vivie must also deal with those male appetites herself, as she is faced with three suitors: the middle-aged architect Praed (Gray Powell), approved by her mother; Frank Gardner (Wade Bogert-O’Brien), Vivie’s current boyfriend, who is attracted to her for financial as well as romantic reasons; and Sir George Crofts (Thom Marriott), her mother’s business partner, who wants her as a trophy wife.
Eda Holmes’s compelling modern-dress production is framed as though it were being performed in the private men’s club where it made its debut. The irony that this play about women’s plight is being staged in such a traditional male bastion, the stuffy 19th-century equivalent of a man cave, is not lost. Shaw isn’t only writing about women’s plight, however, but also skewering Victorian hypocrisy—one of Mrs. Warren’s many respectable clients includes an Anglican clergyman, Frank’s father, the Rev. Gardner (Shawn Wright)—and the amorality of capitalism. Then, as now, there’s money to be made in appealing to humankind’s baser instincts.
The play’s first plot twist, concerning the identity of Vivie’s dad, can be seen a kilometre away; but the second and more significant one involves Vivie’s changing relationship with her mother. Vivie’s final decision, without totally giving it away, is the kind of brave, unsentimental break with the past that progress demands; but that doesn’t mean it isn’t painful—especially given Underhay’s hugely sympathetic performance as Mrs. Warren. Someone has called Underhay the Cate Blanchett of the Shaw Festival and, certainly, the luminous actress brings a depth and power to everything she does. Here, her character’s broad working-class accent lends an added pathos to the role, especially when contrasted with the posh tones of her adored daughter; it’s a residual reminder of where Mrs. Warren comes from and of how much she’s achieved.
Dzialoszynski’s blue-jean clad Vivie is startlingly modern, full of the brash confidence of youth but also a little of its cruelty. The male actors are all good, from Bogert-O’Brien’s charming but caddish Frank to Marriott’s suavely sleazy Sir George, whose appalling proposal is thankfully shot down by Vivie without so much as a second thought. Finally, however, this is a play about a mother and daughter, and the dawning of a new female generation that would go on to battle successfully for the vote, among other basic rights. Among the big issues of contemporary feminism has been whether young women fully appreciate what their forerunners have won for them. Shaw seems to anticipate that here, as Vivie discovers her mother’s efforts on her behalf but also confronts the perceived betrayal of their sex that they required. If, indeed, that’s what it is. Could it be that Mrs. Warren, wielding her sexual power over men, is just one of the original lipstick feminists?
The Heidi Chronicles takes us a century forward, to the already much-chronicled baby boom generation, but this time seen from the female, feminist perspective. Wasserstein’s play follows the life of intellectual and wallflower Heidi Holland, from a prep-school dance in 1965 to an art history lecture in 1989, hitting various boomer touchstones—the anti-Vietnam War movement, Watergate, the murder of John Lennon—along the way. It’s boomer nostalgia with an edge, given Heidi’s slightly aloof and critical viewpoint, and both funny and affecting as it shows her negotiating with the new freedoms and continued limitations of life as a woman in privileged American society. (Just as Vivie Warren is a Cambridge grad, Heidi studies at Vassar and moves in the rarified sphere of well-educated, over-achieving New Yorkers.)
Soulpepper’s revival is directed by actor Gregory Prest, who draws some fine performances from his fellow thesps—most notably from Damien Atkins as Peter Patrone, Heidi’s witty, cynical, and perfectly sympatico friend, who would be an ideal partner for her if he wasn’t, of course, gay. Jordan Pettle, too, nails the requisite combination of charm and asshole-ry as Heidi’s sometime lover Scoop Rosenbaum, a smart Jewish radical-turned-yuppie who can’t get over his own ego. And Sarah Wilson is amusingly wide-eyed as Susan Johnston, Heidi’s BFF—a born conformist in contrast to her more wary friend.
Laura Condlln, however, is the real surprise, revealing herself to be a deft character comedian in an array of roles. She’s almost unrecognizable as a hilariously aggressive lesbian feminist in an army jacket who rates a sister’s commitment to the cause based on whether or not she shaves her legs. (Condlln just won the Toronto Theatre Critics Award for Best Actress this season, for a far more serious turn as a female Dr. Stockmann in Tarragon Theatre’s An Enemy of the People.)
You’ll notice we haven’t mentioned Heidi herself. She’s played by Michelle Monteith in what is for the actress an atypically mousy style. Although this is Heidi’s story, she often comes across here as the straight (wo)man to a gang of funny friends. To be fair, her character is often overwhelmed by others—most obviously and pointedly in a group television interview where her male pals, Scoop and Peter, hog the spotlight. But Monteith’s understated performance threatens to fade into the scenery, only fully coming alive in Heidi’s big meltdown scene, when a graduation speech at her old school turns into an explosion of long-repressed feelings about her place in the world.
Heidi is an art historian, a career one of the male characters dismisses lightly, but she uses her field to reclaim the important female artists ignored by history. The play is bracketed by her lecture about some of them, complete with a striking slide show (designed by Shannon Lea Doyle), and serves as a powerful reminder of what the second wave of feminism achieved on an academic front. It makes you think of Germaine Greer’s The Obstacle Race and the other seminal works that helped bring about a massive readjustment in how women are regarded historically. It’s all part of the great, ongoing push towards full equality that scored its first major triumphs in Shaw’s lifetime, gained so much more ground in Wasserstein’s, and continues today.