by Michael Bowen & r & Prostitution is just the hook -- what George Bernard Shaw really wants to do in Mrs. Warren's Profession is change your mind about how society exploits women. Things haven't changed much, even since 1893: We pretend not to notice when impoverished women decide to become streetwalkers, and then we condemn them for lack of character.

I'll show you some immoral characters, the playwright says -- they wear the latest fashions and work in fine buildings and smile, smile above their well-fed bellies. They can afford their moral categories; meanwhile, some people can't afford their next meal.

At opening night audience for ARt's second show (through Oct. 8), the audience was unusually quiet and attentive. During an oratorical play, they were listening intently to the debates Mrs. Warren has with her daughter. Vivie is unsure who her father is or what her mother does -- she's even unsure of how to respond once she does find out. There are hints of corruption and incest and feminism (shocking!), all presented in blameless language. Director Michael Weaver has the theatrical smarts to fill a talky play with unexpected reversals and humor, and ARt's Mrs. Warren is the kind of production that will keep you rooted to your seat during the show itself and scratching your head thoughtfully afterward. You'll sit just as noiselessly as the first-night crowd did.

A century ago -- and even today -- folks might expect a scene about a young woman discovering that her mother is a big-time madam to end with the mother's tearful self-recrimination and the daughter's moral disgust. Shaw's having none of that: His scene ends with a mother-daughter reunion, with the assertion that even whores love their children -- as much as the rest of us, in fact. Prostitutes sell what's available to them, marketing what they do best. Are they really so different from the rest of us?

As the international bordello madam, Karen Nelsen rages impressively against both the system and her idealistic daughter. She commands the stage -- bossing Vivie around, instinctively cajoling men who might do something for her, raging when her daughter behaves incomprehensibly. In tirades against moralists who condemn prostitutes and then feel better about themselves for having done so, Nelsen pulls up a chair and, with hands on spread knees, delivers the goods of righteous indignation. In a half-dozen Spokane performances by this talented actress, this is her finest achievement -- ingratiating, insecure, angry.

As Vivie Warren, Caryn Hoaglund tweaks traditional views of femininity: She's smart, she smokes and she doesn't need a man in her life, thank you. Hoaglund strides confidently when she's sure of herself -- and crumples into a chair when berated by her mother. In their fourth-act confrontation, Nelsen and Hoaglund work as a team -- the wolverine and the cobra, circling each other, using Lisa Caryl's fine Victorian gowns to conceal the claws underneath.

Patrick Treadway creates real menace in the role of Mrs. Warren's sleazy partner, Sir George Crofts (even if Ron Ford, as the reverend, has more of the bulldog look that the script calls for). Treadway's wealthy baronet demonstrates his ineffectualness (he can't open a lawn chair) and his arrogance (muttering under his breath about how other's concerns -- anything other than his own business -- is beneath him). Treadway succeeds in making Sir George and his petty vengefulness seem both dangerous and beneath concern; it's a solid performance.

As Vivie's love interest, Frank, Jon Lutyens injects plenty of mischievous energy and boyish, prankish fun. But his character gambles, brandishes a gun, smarts off to his dad -- there's an edginess of rebellion in Frank that Lutyens' literate elf hasn't yet captured.

Director Michael Weaver contributes a natural-seeming but pointed tableau for the first-act curtain line along with some interesting blocking (of the power-mongering kind) when Vivie has to fend off the advances of an unwelcome suitor.

Vivie bears more than a passing resemblance to Barbara Undershaft -- another young woman who's repulsed by her parent's way of making money. (In Major Barbara, Daddy makes bombs for a living, so his daughter rejects him.) But the secret to living in a morally compromised society isn't to reject it or step outside it. Insisting that you'll have nothing to do with tainted money leaves you no place to go.

Everything around us is the product of exploitation -- but we can't boycott everything. We have to live in the world as we find it -- and the solution is not to embrace what Shaw calls the Gospel of Art (life is an art museum, and never mind the homeless people sleeping just outside it) or the Gospel of Getting On (happiness equals making the big bucks, so back-stab everybody you can). The solution is to follow the Gospel of Engagement by confronting the world's problems head-on. Not so different, really, from the Gospel of Christ himself (whose social activism Shaw admired).

Shaw's achievement in Mrs. Warren's Profession is to demonstrate that idealism of Vivie's sort -- washing her hands of her mother's whole affair -- doesn't get at the root of the problem. Because the root of all evil, in Shaw's terms, is poverty -- and the fact that it persists in Iraq and Darfur, in New Orleans and Spokane. ARt's production, full of intense debate leavened by humor and deep feeling, lights a fire under our seats, and G.B.S. would've approved.

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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