Money makes the world go round—as many of the characters in George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara” would readily agree (except for perhaps the titular one). Summing up a play that unapologetically casts cynicism as one of the stars while exploring the relevance of religious salvation to “real life,” requires walking a bit of an ideological and political tightrope. In the Washington Stage Guild’s (WSG) production of “Major Barbara,” the cast and crew approach this particular Shavian universe with both understated grace and in-your-face quirkiness—and when performing a Shaw play, is there really any other way to do it?
…the cast and crew approach this particular Shavian universe with both understated grace and in-your-face quirkiness…highly entertaining production…
“Major Barbara” follows the exploits of the Undershafts. The clan’s matriarch, Lady Britomart, is played by Laura Giannarelli. She incidentally manages to give what could be construed as a patriarch-heavy play a highly animated shift in focus during her show-stealing scenes. Lady Britomart, along with her three children, Sarah (Marie Claire Lyon), Stephen (Justino Brokaw), and Barbara (Emelie Faith Thompson) live a relatively lavish lifestyle thanks to the professional dealings of their estranged father, Andrew Undershaft (Stephen Patrick Martin). Undershaft runs the long-held family business: a munitions factory. Martin’s stern matter-of-factness in the role lends itself quite well to a character who’s trying to be both a last-minute dad and an aerial bomb manufacturer with a god complex. I got chills when Martin’s Undershaft, impugning his son’s naivete, says, “I am the government of your country.”
The title character, Major Barbara of the Salvation Army, begins this play as an idealist, longing to save the world, or more specifically, the lost and hungry souls in need of saving. Her efforts are effective. Perhaps they are so effective because she does possess something of her father’s no-nonsense approach to life, love, and everything in between. That would appear to be the playwright’s point. Even the seeming “do-gooders” are not wholly immune to the pragmatic materialism that makes a man like Undershaft exclaim, “I’m a millionaire, that is my religion.” Barbara may shun monetary contributions to the cause, but when it comes right down to it, she understands that in a fight for someone’s soul, no tactic is off the table.
Essentially every character in this play is tested. Just about every member of the cast does a superb job of conveying the deep-seated struggle that Shaw seems to want audiences to internalize, take home, and examine within the context of their own lives. Money versus morality. Religion versus atheism. Feeding the machines of war versus feeding the less fortunate.
Major Barbara’s beau, Dolphus Cusins (Benjamin Russell), emerges as perhaps the most “tested” among the cast of characters. Russell’s portrayal does indeed make you both love and loathe him as he vacillates between good and evil—in this case, between Major Barbara and her father, “The Prince of Darkness.”
Thanks to Stephen Carpenter’s direction, WSG’s production really does allow audiences a sharply defined glimpse of two worlds and the messy in between that tends to trip up humanity. It is part drawing room comedy and part theatrical manifesto for social and political reform. The play’s acts move between the Undershaft’s “polite” drawing room and the stark reality of the Salvation Army shelter. The dual casting certainly makes its point. It almost reads a bit like the The Wizard of Oz—the fantastical world of Oz counterposed to the drab reality of the farm back in Kansas. You decide which is which.
Both the costumes by Maria Bissex and scenery by Megan Holden artistically contribute to the perplexities this play presents. The interchangeable nature of the sets speaks directly to the drama’s central dichotomies—adding another clever “stop-and-make-you-think” element to the production. The final scene especially, taking place in the munitions factory, offers an eye-opening and somewhat discordant whimsy (think Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) which at first doesn’t quite seem to fit. Yet it somehow works, helping this highly entertaining production stay true to what makes George Bernard Shaw, George Bernard Shaw.
Running Time: Approximately three hours and 15 minutes with two intermissions.
“Major Barbara” runs through December 11, 2022 at Washington Stage Guild, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20001. For more information and tickets, on this and upcoming shows, go online. Masks are required for all ticket holders.