BWW Reviews: THE OLDEST PROFESSION is Fun and Full of Heart
Theatre Southwest is currently presenting THE OLDEST PROFESSION by Paula Vogel, who is known for her decidedly strong, controversial works like HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE that examines incest and THE BALTIMORE WALTZ that is about AIDS. In THE OLDEST PROFESSION, she gives audiences a chance to see a softer side of her writing, using prostitution as a way to explore the community of sisterhood while weaving in dated but humorous political zingers (i.e. "This is America where any girl can start in the alley and wind up a madam!") disparaging the economic boom and decline that began with President Reagan's 80s. In the end, this show is really about the passing of businesses, clients, and our close friends and how we deal with that loss as a community.
David Holloway, with assistance from Betty McCormick, directs the production with pretty even pacing and ensures that the transplants from New Orleans to New York City are as likeable as any of the women in STEEL MAGNOLIAS. The first act seems a bit long, but the emotionally driven and touching second act really makes up for it.
Monica Lynn Passley's musical direction and Sandi Morgan's choreography for the songs create ultimately fun, star-power moments that allow the women a chance to break the fourth wall, flirting with the audience before their characters are lured to their Big Easy Bordello in the sky. Any imperfection in singing is overshadowed by the zeal and charisma of the actress, selling the moment to the audience with every ounce of energy and soul that she can muster.
Sandi Morgan's Lillian is the character the audience gets to spend the least amount of time with; however, by the end of the first act, the audience sees her as a strong, aging woman still full of the vixen qualities that brought her to the profession in the first place. Despite working the gray-haired circuit of Upper West Side retirement homes, she is still charming and alluring for clients and audience alike.
As Mae, Carolyn Montgomery, is the bookkeeping madam that is on the threshold of senility. She goes above and beyond to protect her girls and their positions, at one point threatening to cut another woman of the street with a switchblade as her "stable" looks on. She is strong, yet elegant-never wanting the manners of her girls to slip in front of clients or her. Carolyn Montgomery plays Mae as an aging Miss Mona from BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE, and the characterization works brilliantly in the production.
The ambitious and cantankerous Ursula, played by Mary Lou Roschbach, cannot wait to become madam and hurts feelings on her climb into the position. She is a shrewd businesswoman that essentially removes the pleasure from the job once she is in power. She unapologetically is everything that Mae was not, which Mary Lou Roschbach expertly employs to provide a fascinating dynamic and tension in the show, which really allows the second act to leap off the stage and into the heart of the assembled audience.
Edna, portrayed by Lisa Schofield, is vivacious and successful. She is Mae's top earner having had a $100 night at the top of the show. Despite the ability to flaunt her successes, she is the penultimate team player and inspires her coworkers to her level by supporting their efforts, praising them for whatever they earned. Lisa Schofield presents a character that knows and understands her sensuality and has a self-confidence that drives her clients wild with desire.
As Vera, Cheryl Tanner, gets the chance to affect the audience the most in the play's final scene-swiftly creating an audible gasp in the auditorium at the performance I was at. Vera is delicate and vulnerable the entire show, which allows the audience to have even more sympathy and empathy for her character's arc from beginning to end. Cheryl Tanner's performance brings the show from being just a fun, little piece that parallels the country's economics to having a powerful, heart-rending poignancy that still can elicit an emotional response today (31 years after it was written).
Set Design by David Holloway and John Stevens makes great use of the space, and uses a decided and delicate realism to adequately capture the look and feel of an Upper West Side park. It is complete with a park bench that is strikingly similar, if not an exact replica, as those seen in any New York City park. In the Upstage Left corner is the entrance to a Victorian parlor that suitably serves as the Big Easy Bordello in the sky and that has believable décor and designs to it as well.
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