There are moments in Mad Cow Theatre's production of "Mrs. Warren's Profession" when you might want to close your eyes — so your only focus is on the voices of the actors.
That's because in tackling George Bernard Shaw's 1893 classic, director Eric Zivot has created an amazing symphony of sound.
Shaw, of course, has a beautiful way with words — here the perfect quip, there a clever turn of phrase. Mad Cow's top-notch actors vocalize those wonderful words in a way that strikingly defines the essence of their characters.
Tommy Keesling stammers nervously, sounding anxiously polite as kindly Mr. Praed. Stephan Jones' blustery tone has more than a hint of steel in it as Sir George Crofts, a man used to getting what he wants. Peter Travis gives fatuous Frank Gardner a smug patter, delightfully dripping with charm — if not always sincerity.
But it's the women especially who put more than the script into their speech. As the title character, Jennifer Christa Palmer tells us of Mrs. Warren's ascent from poverty to riches as her society accent drops back into the working-class screech of her hardscrabble past.
As her modern-thinking daughter, Sarah Lockard uses clipped tones to indicate she's all business. But there's a periodic quaver in her strident speech that lets the audience feel the humanity beneath her hard exterior.
There's a reason Lockard's character, Vivie Warren, eschews sentimentality. As a child, she was shipped off to boarding schools by her cosmopolitan mother, who traveled abroad for her business. When Vivie finds out that business involves prostitution, complex moral and cultural issues come to the fore.
Shaw wrote the play as an indictment of Victorian England's treatment of women — how they were marginalized, trivialized and left with few options — mostly unconventional ones — to be successful in their own right.
Emily Smith's period costumes emphasize the lot of women, nearly trapped in their high-collared, long dresses.
But it's easy to extrapolate that undervalued position to groups in today's culture. And Shaw makes sure there's no simple black-and-white judgment on Mrs. Warren's choices.
If you do close your eyes, don't leave them shut too long. You don't want to miss Lisa Buck's clever and lovely watercolor-like set. Watching the stage crew move the set pieces in a precise choreography to create new locales is a show in itself.
The way the scene changes come together is just another manifestation of how everything in this production clicks, from Boomer Bardo's nostalgic sound design to the formal preshow British anthems. "Mrs. Warren's Profession" is funny, it's thoughtful, it's wonderful.
'Mrs. Warren's Profession'
• What: A Mad Cow Theatre production of the George Bernard Shaw play
• Length: 2:20, including intermission
• Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 54 W. Church St., Orlando
• When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through March 3
• Tickets: $34; pay what you wish at a special 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27, performance (reserved seats available for $15)
• Call: 407-297-8788
• Online: MadCowTheatre.com