George Bernard Shaw built his career as a writer of polemical plays on a foundation of years’ worth of unsuccessful novels, popular music criticism, and eloquently crafted speeches in support of social causes. Perhaps that’s why every character in Major Barbara everyone has a point, a position and a pulpit. Fortunately, they also have personalities, stories of their own, and good senses of humor.
Lady Britomart (played by Sarah Fischer) is a bit of a cartoon character, but she’s quite wily. Though she has separated from her husband, Andrew Undershaft (Justin Harner) and his multi-million dollar cannon works years ago, she now seeks his financial support for her son and two daughters. The Lady retains a bit of a spark for her roguish husband.
Her feckless upper-class son, Stephen, is resolutely unprepared for any profession, but in Sean Magill’s portrayal, he quite proud of himself. Her daughter Sarah (Chelsea Gill) is a layabout who has no special concerns past the details of the next party. Kevin Sheehan makes a good, drone-like companion for her.
But it’s Lady Britomart’s daughter Barbara (Hannah Kennedy) who is the title character of the play. To the chagrin of the whole family, Barbara has found religion. Inspired by her newfound faith, she goes about happily saving the souls of the poor with the Salvation Army. She’s aided by Shewan Howard as Adolphus, a graceful young scholar of the classics whose fervor may have more to do with Barbara herself than with saving anyone’s soul.
The Souls That Need Saving
Andrew Vosper and Isabel Dieppa are a treat as a couple of less deserving down-and-outers who know just which tales to tell and which buttons to push as they con the army. Joe Stollenwerk plays a third lost soul, the dismissed old Peter.
James Moffat takes a real star turn as Bill Walker, who arrives at the shelter raring to give his ex-girlfriend a good boff in the face. He hits Blair Dietrick, who plays an innocent army lass, before being beaten up himself, and finally trying to buy his soul from Barbara. It’s quite a performance.
Rounding out the cast were two large actors in small parts, Tad Tobey as the embarrassed family butler and David Zoeller as an officious functionary at the cannon factory.
An Ethical Conundrum
Things come to a head for the Army when the shelters are threatened with closing because of a dearth of finances. When Barbara finds out that the only way to stay open is to take money from a whiskey distiller and from her own father’s munitions factories, she is appalled. Yet Kristl Densley, as the leader of the Salvation Army, counters Barbara’s outrage with pragmatism. She is willing to take money from anyone to help the Army in its battle for souls.
A Murky Conclusion
According to the program notes, Shaw had difficulty working out an effective dramatic conclusion for Major Barbara. It is indeed a stuffed act:
Undershaft, played with aplomb by Justin Harner, opts to leave the business to Adolphus. The arms maker and the Greek scholar joust over the terms of the agreement. Barbara leaves the Salvation Army and its congregation of the poor and hungry so that she can minister instead to the well-off souls in the cannon works. The once estranged family is united.
It’s all a lot of verbose fun. The general outlines of the plot are clear, but the details of just how they come to be are pretty murky.
Hyunsuk Shin’s design of the Undershaft living room is lovely, its walls decorated with paintings of flowers and birds. It’s a neat transition when the set is changed, first to the space outside the Salvationists mission and then to a modern munitions factory. Costume designer Lydia Dawson’s 1960s outfits are attractive and confidently hewn.