“The Oldest Profession”

April 18, 2008

‘The Oldest Profession’ Offers Laughs, Insight, Social Commentary

The cast of the Woods Hole Theater Company’s dinner theater production of “The Oldest Profession” (from left): Cathy Smith of Falmouth, Louise Patrick of Waquoit, Geralyn Peterkin of East Falmouth, Lori Spurling of East Falmouth, and Gail Almeida of Sandwich. The play will be performed next weekend, April 24 to 27, at the Nimrod Restaurant in Falmouth.

“The Oldest Profession,” a play about the joys and sorrows and life experiences of five aging prostitutes by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paula Vogel, is the latest dinner theater offering from the Woods Hole Theater Company. Directed by Don Dutton, it was performed last weekend at the Nimrod Restaurant, 100 Dillingham Avenue, Falmouth, accompanied by a meal including Caesar salad, Parmesan d’aubergine (eggplant), with coffee and a cake/sherbet dessert served at intermission. The food was good, and people seemed to enjoy the social setting.

Paula Vogel is known for mixing humor with controversial topics such as AIDS, homosexuality, pornography, domestic abuse, gender roles, and child sexual abuse and incest, which are the topics of “How I Learned to Drive,” the play that won her the Pulitzer in 1998. (For those who may be interested in comparing plays by Ms. Vogel, Bridgewater State College Theatre Arts Department will be presenting “How I Learned to Drive” on April 25 and 26, and on May 1, 2, 3 at 8 PM, with a 2 PM matinee performance on April 27.)

The Oldest Profession,” which was written in 1981, combines comedy with political and social commentary. It has been said that Ms. Vogel intended her play as a criticism of the Reagan Administration’s economic policies. In 2008, this is not readily apparent, though the economic issues may feel familiar. There are humorous references to Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, labor and management, and risky investments, as the women grapple with the physical and financial problems of growing older.

The women have been together for 50 years; one was recruited upon graduation from eighth grade. They worked together in Storyville, the red light district of New Orleans, and moved to New York City when Storyville was no longer profitable. When the play opens, a week before the 1980 election of Mr. Reagan, they are clustered around a park bench, sharing stories about the meager profits of the day.

The set is minimal, which is to be expected, given limited space in the restaurant, but I would have liked just a little more, perhaps even a painted backdrop, especially having seen the wonderful set for the Woods Hole Theater Company’s recent production of “Same Time, Next Year,” also directed by Don Dutton, when an entire summer cottage was brought to life in the same space.

All five actresses perform their roles well. Geralyn Peterkin plays Mae, the caring and responsible madam; Cathy Smith plays Vera, the sweet one, who comforts Mae in her time of need, enjoys cuddling, and almost gets married; Gail Almeida very effectively plays Ursula, the bossy, tough and businesslike one, whose plans for financial gain don’t quite work out; Louise Patrick does a great job as the flashy and adventurous Edna, who gets fired from her job at McDonald’s for being too seductive; and Lori Spurling convincingly plays Lillian, the pretty one, the one who enjoys going to the theater, and who wanted to be an actress herself, but “Lillian was no fool; she knew there was no money in the theater.”

Discussing their meager finances, Lillian jokes that “we should be eligible for Social Security because of all our years of social service.” Many of their clientele now live at the Home for the Aged, and payment is not what it used to be. “You’ll get better tips,” says another woman, “if you avoid discussing the election, gas prices, and the economy.”

Ursula is after the others to become more businesslike in their dealings, insisting that the women work harder and more efficiently. Lillian, whose last client paid her with a pair of silk stockings, not money, brightly replies, “I can’t just hop into bed and hop out again.” She pauses, joking, “It’s the arthritis!”

“We need to get our hands on the AARP mailing list,” says Ursula.

The rapid-fire dialogue does keep the audience laughing, but it works against a perception of the women as elderly. They talk about aging; they have arthritis, their digestive systems don’t work as well as they used to, but, on the whole, the ladies seem only middle-aged, not ancient, not just in looks, but in the dynamic way they talk and move about the stage.

I did find one scene about aging particularly touching and well acted: Geralyn Peterkin as Mae begins to lose her memory. Her fears for herself and her efforts to keep the problem a secret from Ursula, who, she fears, will “pack me on the next ice floe heading south,” are moving and make one care about the plight of these women.

The arthritis and indigestion are played more for laughs, not a bad choice in a play of this nature, but it holds us at arm’s length from considering the reality of the issues.

Without giving away too much of the plot, all the women get a chance to do a little burlesque dancing. None of the women were expert dancers, but their lack of expertise was endearing and appropriate. The play ends with all the women on the stage in a fairly uncoordinated, but amusing dance routine. I think that the awkwardness was intentional; the audience enjoyed their efforts.

The play will be performed again on April 24 to 27, with dinner on Thursday through Saturday starting at 7 PM, and the play beginning at 8 PM. On Sunday, the play is performed as a matinee, with dinner at 4 and the performance at 5 PM. Tickets are $40, and reservations may be made by calling 508-540-6525.

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