Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Major Barbara

Sarah Agnew
George Bernard Shaw was never shy about taking on society's sacred cows. In Major Barbara, he takes on a pair of doozies —organized religion and the machineries of war. And the Guthrie Theater's new production of Shaw's turn-of-the 20th-century satire is at its best when focused on these two questions. Since the script occasionally strays from these two key areas, it makes for a frustrating evening, one that alternates between thought-provoking discussions on the above issues and somewhat dull parodies of Edwardian life.

The story turns on two characters —Munitions baron Andrew Undershaft and the titular character, who is a daughter and a devotee of the Salvation Army. After meeting for the first time in many years, the two challenge each other —Undershaft will travel to Barbara's East London mission, and then she'll come to his factory.

There's more to the Undershaft family though, who run interference throughout the story. This includes the stiff matriarch, Lady Britomart, proper and even-more-stiff son Stephen, and socialite daughter Sarah. There are also a pair of suitors —twit of the year candidate Charles (for Sarah) and Greek-scholar-turned-Salvationist Adolphus. Yet, while these characters have their moments (especially Adolphus, who despite his scholar ways is a man after Andrew Undershaft's heart), this is really a story about a father and daughter and the two worlds they inhabit.

It all comes down to the two confrontations: one amidst the squalor of the West Ham Salvation Army Shelter; the other in the modern cleanliness of the killing factory. Who wins in the end is a matter of debate, but the fire both show is the fuel that keeps the show running and allows it to stick in the mind long after the final curtain.

In those roles, Sarah Agnew and Paul O'Brien give terrific performances, full of fire and the conviction that their approach to the modern world is the correct one. The others are allowed to stick closer to comedy, though Jesse Pennington as Adolphus takes on additional facets as the show deepens.

Director Lisa Peterson takes a slow and measured approach to all of the action, which makes some of the less essential moments drag, but in turn gives Shaw's finest moments at the end all the room to shine. This is only intensified by Neil Patel's phenomenal final set, which centers on a silver missile and features all manner of sharp angles, silver cannonballs and a modern town set at a 45-degree angle in the distance - all of it sharpening the fear of the bloody future that the audience knows is about to come.

Perhaps that's what makes the religious and war sides of Major Barbara resonate so well. Social niceties and the machinations of the upper crust don't hold as much interest, or room for satire, as they once did, but religion and war will always be with us, and the battle between the two will most likely never go out of fashion.

Major Barbara runs through June 17 on the McGuire Proscenium Stage at the Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis. For tickets, call 612-377-2224 or visit

Photo: © Michal Daniel, 2007

- Ed Huyck

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