Major Barbara is a force to be reckoned with in her army—the Salvation Army. As a street preacher, Major Barbara is armed with a good heart, but she rules with an iron hand, taking no prisoners in her battle for souls.
This society gal turned society savior is steadfast in her resolve to save mankind; her morals are upright and solid. But when this religious dynamo faces a dynamite maker who wants to donate funds from what Barbara sees as ill-gotten gains, her inner moral war begins. And, to make matters more complicated, the arms dealer is her father.
Major Barbara was written by playwright and socialist George Bernard Shaw at the beginning of the 20th century, when England was headed toward war while disregarding its faltering economy. The setup sounds eerily familiar, with much of the play hitting issues currently being played out in the world.
But what makes Major Barbara fascinating are the gray areas into which it delves, pushing points not readily apparent from the outset. The play makes the audience question moralistic rhetoric, from all sides, about religion, war, economics, social standings and poverty. There are classic Shaw lines aplenty, especially when Barbara’s cannon-making father, Andrew Undershaft, debates societal ills by saying the jobs he provides are more moralistic than the hard-nosed religious stance Barbara makes. “The greatest of evils and the worst of crimes is poverty,” he answers when his daughter attacks his profession.
The real surprise, though, is how funny Major Barbara is, with a wry look at society, family fortunes, economics, fate, love and honor. There are great give-and-take conversations between mother and son; father and daughter; lovers; and religious do-gooders and their reluctant, hungry recipients. When asked about his son’s career path, Undershaft makes this observation: “He knows nothing, and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.”
The humor is intact in City Theatre’s production of Major Barbara, with director Christine Nicholson lending a gentle, guiding hand and never letting the scenes plod along or sink into ponderous pontifications. The cast is altogether solid, starting with great performances from Lew Rooker, who plays Undershaft with a great twinkle in his eyes, and Katherine Pappa, who is careful to make Barbara as likable as she is unflappable.
Other standout performances include those of Brett Williams as Barbara’s fiancé, Maria Ryken as Lady Britomart, Beau Crawford as son Stephen, Dana Strickland and James McKellips as the betrothed couple and Thomas Bach as Peter Shirley. A special mention goes to Nicole Sivell for wonderful period costumes, and to the scene direction in which actors change sets while singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” It’s a production that will leave you laughing, thinking and talking.