The title of Paula Vogel’s The Oldest Profession has two meanings. It refers to the saying that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession—originated by Rudyard Kipling—but also to the aging of its characters. The play has no time for titillating fantasies. It is more interested in the ravages of time—and how they diminish the minds, bodies and wallets of its characters.
In other words, audiences who go to see Profile Theatre’s production of The Oldest Profession expecting provocative sex scenes will be disappointed. Everyone else, however, will have the opportunity to savor the play’s moving, haunting and grimly witty depiction of women whose friendships are tested by dark, capitalistic forces.
The Oldest Profession, directed by Jamie M. Rea, begins in the waning days of President Jimmy Carter’s first and final term, which is no accident. The five sex workers who are the focus of the play—Vera (JoAnn Johnson), Edna (Amalia Alarcón Morris), Lillian (Jane Bement Geesman), Ursula (Elizabeth Elias Huffman) and Mae (Brenda Phillips)—are not just characters. They are the embodiment of the story of a nation.
Vera, Edna, Lillian and Ursula work for Mae, who is technically a madame but seems more like a surrogate mother. She is both taskmaster and guardian—a professional who is also a protector. She is the first person the others should turn to for advice and the second of them to vanish, part of a series of disappearances that Vogel explains in mostly vague terms.
Vogel has never been afraid to write frank, funny dialogue about sex, so it is no surprise that The Oldest Profession is packed with zingers, like Vera’s declaration that sex work can be a patriotic duty. Yet Vogel refuses to let the play become a cute comedy for playgoers looking for crude laughs. The soul of her creation is both its humor and its meditation on what it is like when democracy devolves into tyranny.
After Mae succumbs to memory loss, Ursula takes her place and embraces the role of the domineering boss with relish. She overschedules her employees, reduces their lunch breaks, and uses their money to double down on a dubious investment scheme—an act of cruel incompetence that leaves the play’s already poor characters even more impoverished than before.
The Oldest Profession was first published in 2005, but it does not feel like a product of the Bush era. It is arguably about the transition from Carter to Ronald Reagan, which is symbolized by the way the quietly virtuous leadership of Mae gives way to the loudly performative leadership of Ursula. The play is Vogel’s way of reminding us that a business can be a country unto itself—and that a country can only be as democratic as its economy allows it to be.
Profile is performing The Oldest Profession at Old Moody Stages in the Barge Building—a massive, open-ended arena on the South Waterfront on Zidell family property—and it is a place where Vogel’s characters seem thoroughly at home. The rough and rugged space suits The Oldest Profession, which would not have made sense in a slick or modernist venue where women like Mae and Ursula probably would not be welcome.
While the Barge Building is a character in its own right, it does not distract from the play’s actual characters. The actors believably banter, bicker and wage emotional wars with apparent ease—especially Johnson and Alarcón Morris, who are onstage the longest.
They lean into the physical transformations of their characters, stiffening their muscles and bending their backs as Vera and Edna crumble under the weight of a job they can barely do and cannot afford to quit. There is tangible physical and emotional agony in their performances—and also immense joy, which manifests in a wonderful scene where they press their cheeks together.
It is interesting that in a play about characters who spend their lives serving men, the greatest intimacy is between two women. Therein lies the beauty of The Oldest Profession—it confronts the evils of patriarchalism, yet keeps them offstage where they belong. That is not just a clever storytelling strategy. That is justice.
SEE IT: The Oldest Profession plays at Old Moody Stages’ Barge Building at Zidell Yards, 3121 S Moody Ave., 503-242-0080, profiletheatre.org. Through Aug. 15. $40.