19th century classic, reimagined: Morality meets generational divide in ‘Mrs. Warren’

The Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS) department once again pushed the boundaries of theater with a thought-provoking production of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” last weekend. 

Director and TAPS Assistant Professor Michael Rau’s modern adaptation of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” written in 1893, provided a fresh perspective on the play’s complex mother-daughter relationship.

In the play, Vivie Warren (Junah Jang ’24), a young woman and Ivy League graduate, struggles to come to terms with her mother Mrs. Kitty Warren’s (Dia Bhojwani ’27) profession as a brothel owner. Together, the Warrens grapple with questions of morality, class and the choices available to women in a society that allows them limited economic independence. 

As part of TAPS’s “Developmental Stage” series, where directors take a project from an initial idea to a fully realized production within a few weeks, “Mrs. Warren” was reimagined in a contemporary setting, complete with cell phones, laptops and modern societal concerns. 

In an interview with third-year Ph.D. student Marina Johnson, Rau expressed his eagerness to explore the juxtaposition between familial duty and self-agency. Accordingly, he made cuts to the original play to emphasize the mother-daughter relationship and generational divide, which he felt was at the heart of the play.  

The student cast delivered outstanding performances. Notably, Bhojwani convincingly embodied Mrs. Warren, challenging the audience’s initial perceptions of her as a flat character. Bhojwani encouraged the audience to reevaluate their understanding of the protagonist, who, as both a scheming brothel proprietor and a caring mother, defied simple categorization. At the same time, Jang captured Vivie’s complex blend of vulnerability and ambition, making the interactions between mother and daughter truly engaging.

Visiting scholar Oliver Waterhouse added depth to the web of relationships with his humorous portrayal of Crofts, Mrs. Warren’s business partner who became a passionate suitor of Vivie. Meanwhile, Abby Rose Merrill’s ’23 interpretation of a gender-bent Frank, Vivie’s significant other, provided a unique twist to the story, further enhancing the contemporary relevance of the adaptation.

The costume design was also impressive. Juxtaposing traditional and modern elements, garments cleverly underscored each character’s personality. For instance, Mrs. Warren’s attire featured a blend of elegant Victorian fashion with subtle hints of contemporary accessories, mirroring her complex character that straddled the line between traditional societal norms and modern entrepreneurship.

An exceptional aspect of Rau’s adaptation was its unapologetic exploration of the complexities within the original text. Rau delved into the moral ambiguity surrounding Mrs. Warren’s profession and the characters’ choices by unearthing the societal and economic factors that shaped their lives. 

For instance, Mrs. Warren was compelled into becoming a brothel owner after being forced to work as a prostitute to support herself. Her gut-wrenching monologue about her upbringing provides a poignant example of how external circumstances can lead individuals into morally ambiguous situations. This vivid portrayal prompted viewers to reflect on their own moral compass, as they witnessed these characters’ lives being shaped by their challenging environments.

“Mrs. Warren” remains a work in progress, as acknowledged by Rau at the start of the show. There were moments of ambiguous character motivations, uneven pacing and thematic inconsistencies.

Regardless, “Mrs. Warren” is a stand-out performance in university theater, leaving the audience with much to ponder.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.