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Major Barbara

The Shaespeare Theatre Company offers a sumptuous production of Shaw's comedy about greed and morality.

By Washington, DC
Andrew Long and Vivienne Benesch
in Major Barbara
(© Scott Suchman)
Andrew Long and Vivienne Benesch
in Major Barbara
(© Scott Suchman)
The Shakespeare Theatre Company's sumptuous production of Major Barbara proves George Bernard Shaw's century-old satire still has a sharp edge, and is every bit as relevant today as it was in Edwardian England. Maybe more so. Skewering perceptions of morality and the idealism of faith, this is no pedantic exercise; rather, it is a delightfully arch deconstruction of some of our most cherished ideals, presided over by a merry band of painstakingly skillful actors who savor each and every syllable rolling off their tongues.

Is money the root of all evil, or is poverty the only true crime? Before you answer in indignant righteousness, consider Andrew Undershaft (Ted van Griethuysen), Europe's top arms and ammunition manufacturer in 1905. Undershaft is completely amoral with regard to how his weapons are used, as long as they are paid for. But he points to the good lives such work provides his employees as his positive contribution to society, not to mention the benefit of their souls.

Undershaft returns to his family after 20 years of estrangement to find daughter Barbara (Vivienne Benesch) committed to life in the Salvation Army. Barbara is aghast at her father's attitudes, believing she is saving souls with bowls of soup. When Barbara learns her mission has accepted a large grant from a whisky distiller in order to stay open (and help those whose lives have been ruined by that whisky), she rebels and leaves the organization. The question then becomes whether or not she will go through with marriage to a man her father has offered to groom as his successor, and thus join in the family business.

Director Ethan McSweeny fortunately understands that there is fun to be had with Shaw's challenging discourse -- and that the most successful sermons do not sound like sermonizing. As a result, not only is the clash that Shaw creates between idealism and realism fully explored, but the human story of people who are seeking a path toward reconciliation is also to be found.

Thanks to van Griethuysen's solid portrayal, Helen Carey's stellar comic work as the imperious Mrs. Undershaft (aka Lady Britomart) can flourish without the need to manufacture unnecessary layers of character. Indeed, Carey singlehandedly saves an overly long first scene with comic precision, as her sprightly work illustrates the foibles of the idle rich. Yet, her later scenes with the hardy van Griethuysen are notable for their effective counterpoint. Each of the supporting actors finds the perfect pitch to dispatch Shaw's witticisms, particularly Karl Kenzler as Adolphus Cusins, the dilettante professor engaged to Barbara who turns out to be surprisingly ambitious, and Tom Story as Stephen, Undershaft's diffident son.

However, Benesch's work is more problematic. She very capably depicts the idealism of young Major Barbara, managing to be devoutly committed without displaying ideological rigidity. But Barbara's ultimate struggle over accommodating "evil" in order to continue doing "good" is smudged somewhat by Benesch displaying perhaps too much secular pride. She seems to abandon God in her work as she becomes consumed with that most common earthly ambition: to win on her own terms. While that does not fatally harm the play's thesis, it is slightly confusing.

Set designer James Noone is utilizing a proscenium configuration for the company's Harman Center for the Arts theater. The Undershaft's London library is a delightfully rendered study in black marble, rich woods, and period detail, while the Salvation Mission is all grimy industrial-age soot, and the munitions factory is a colorful spic-and-span temple of capitalism. Costume designer Robert Perdziola's Edwardian costumes are graceful, with three-piece suits for the men, and velvet dresses for the ladies. Superbly aided by posh sets and elegantly detailed costumes, this production is both eye candy and brain food rolled into one clever morsel.


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