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Theatre in Review: Major Barbara (The Pearl Theatre Company/Gingold Theatrical Group)

Hannah Cabell and company. Photo: Richard Termine

We live in an era of theatrical provocateurs, yet I submit that the most troubling production in town is the Pearl/Gingold revival of Major Barbara. George Bernard Shaw's parable of religion, poverty, and war challenges the audience with an argument that seems stunningly perverse until you begin to acknowledge that it contains more than a few grains of truth. Written well before World War I, it seems to predict that world-shattering conflict in uncanny fashion. Everywhere you look, the comedy is rich, authentic, and haunted by shadows.

The title character is, of course, a young woman of good breeding -- she is the granddaughter of an earl -- who has chosen to join the Salvation Army. Touched by the love of God, Barbara is the ideal recruiter of souls, her face rapt with joy, her words brimming with energy; the way she explains it, Christianity is irresistible, the only sane road to happiness. As played by Hannah Cabell, who combines enormous personal magnetism with a powerful oratorical style, you may be tempted to sign up for the Lord yourself.

Barbara may feel she has much to make up for, because she is the daughter of Andrew Undershaft, who has made his millions through the manufacture of munitions, which he sells to all comers. Barbara's mother, Lady Britomart, separated from Undershaft many years earlier, but the time has come to arrange her children's futures and she summons the wicked old man to make the necessary financial arrangements. As it happens, the only child of the three who interests Undershaft is Barbara, thus igniting a duel between good and evil in which it becomes increasingly difficult to tell one from the other.

Barbara invites Undershaft to the shelter where she works, feeding bread and milk to society's castoffs while coaxing them closer to God. Undershaft is impressed with her work, but he can't stop himself from shattering his daughter's faith with a gesture of extraordinary generosity. When a wealthy distiller offers a donation of five thousand pounds, Undershaft matches it: It's a gesture that will guarantee the long-term security of the Salvation Army, but Barbara is appalled. How can the work of saving souls be financed by the maker of the liquor that degrades them and the warmonger who leads them to destruction? It's a question that resonates today -- remember the furor when one of the much-loathed Koch brothers financed the renovation of the New York State Theatre -- and it concludes the play's first half.

But Shaw has many more arrows in his quiver with which to prick his audience's collective conscience. A visit to Undershaft's "death and devastation factory" (his words) reveals it to be a veritable worker's paradise, a leafy green town with every possible amenity. Undershaft hates labor unions, yet he has erected a socialist dream. Of course, his workers take their lives in their hands working with explosives each day, but otherwise, they lack for nothing. As the industrialist notes, it is easy for Barbara to win converts when they are starving; how well would she succeed with those who live with dignity and in good health?

By this point, Shaw has spun his arguments in so many directions that you may be feeling a touch of vertigo. Barbara's faith is very real, but is she helping the poor or exploiting them without doing anything to improve their collective lot? Undershaft guarantees a standard of living unknown elsewhere in Christian England, yet he is manufacturing tools that could destroy the world. It is not just Barbara who is drawn into Undershaft's web; her fiancé, Adolphus, a Greek scholar, finds himself seriously contemplating going into the war business. Some of Shaw's plays are written to make a single overarching point, but in Major Barbara he replaces one profound, deeply vexing question with another, barely letting us take one in before challenging us anew: In doing so, he proves to be as charming, and Satanic, as Undershaft himself.

As directed by David Staller, artistic director of Gingold Theatrical Group and a true Shaw savant, Major Barbara unfolds as a sparkling comedy in which distressing ideas are embedded like depth charges. Cabell is as good a Major Barbara as I have seen, a mixture of charm and ruthlessness that marks her as Andrew Undershaft's daughter no matter how exalted her motives. Every word she utters sounds freshly thought, the product of a mind too restless to be held captive by conventional piety. She has a more-than-worthy adversary in the Undershaft of Dan Daily, especially in the final scene, when he commands the stage, detonating his ideas with the same moral fervor that possesses his daughter. ("Poverty and slavery have stood up for years to your sermons," he tells her. "They will not stand up to my machine guns.") It is a rare treat to see these two actors have at Shaw's arguments with such dazzling skill.

There is much to enjoy from the rest of the cast as well. Carol Schultz is riotously supercilious as Lady Britomart, who, in her blindness to anything but social standing, sometimes seems like a distant cousin to another Lady B, as envisioned by Oscar Wilde. ("It is only in the middle classes, Stephen, that people get into a state of dumb, helpless horror when they find that there are wicked people in the world.") As the aforementioned Stephen, the only male Undershaft progeny, Alec Shaw is amusingly fatheaded, especially when, in his idea of a moral stand, he announces that he is prepared to live in a less-fashionable house with half the current number of servants rather than take his father's money. Richard Gallagher is charmingly boyish as Adolphus, who joins the Salvation Army merely to woo Barbara, and therefore views the soul-saving business as a delightful game.

Staller has staged Major Barbara with an extra-theatrical twist, having her open the play with a sermon taken from the 1941 film (starring Wendy Hiller) while the cast enters and dresses on stage. Everything takes place on James Noone's stunning black-and-gold set, marked by two staircases and a second level; this works fine for the two acts set at Lady Britomart's home and, with an opening of the upstage wall, is an acceptable solution for the final act, at Undershaft's factory, but this gilded structure seems more than a little odd as a shelter for the poor in Act II. For that matter, the cast, doubling as street characters and missionaries, comes across as too well-bred overall, although Schultz is amusing as Barbara's superior officer, who is skilled at extracting checks from donors, and Robin Leslie Brown is convincing as one of the shelter's more streetwise inhabitants. Also, Tracy Christensen's costumes, which are elsewhere gorgeously detailed, only make a pass at suggesting the poverty of the shelter's inhabitants. Michael Gottlieb's lighting works beautifully with the set, working from low and side angles to create an impression of wealth and glamour. M. Florian Staab's sound design includes the tolling of bells and the slightly subversive notes of ragtime piano.

Any weaknesses are small things in an evening that glitters and troubles in equal measure. Major Barbara makes arguments that are as difficult to take as they are hard to refute. And, of course, it is impossible to see it without imagining the trenches full of disease and death and the loss of almost an entire generation that occurred only a few years in the future. Shaw is too often dismissed as a wry purveyor of paradoxes, but don't you believe it. His is the comedy that kills.--David Barbour


(18 November 2014)

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