The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington has created a production of Major Barbara that is sumptuous in both its cast and its staging. The vividly appointed sets, designed by James Noone, and Robert Perdziola's cleverly detailed costumes are no more dazzling than the performances marshaled by director Ethan McSweeney.
George Bernard Shaw's 1905 play is scarily relevant today, at a time when questions of morality and war coexist with worries about poverty and survival. The skillful cast, demonstrating great ease with speeches that could sound like position papers in lesser hands, bring out the lasting truth in the arguments.
The primary antagonists are Andrew Undershaft (Ted van Griethuysen), a millionaire manufacturer of armaments, and his daughter Barbara (Vivienne Benesch), who has renounced her family fortune to serve as a major in the Salvation Army. The drama comes from the conflict between Undershaft's hard-headed belief that spiritual salvation is a luxury, available only to those who have sufficient money and food, and Barbara's desire to uplift the poor with food and worship, and the actors are well matched and up to the demands of the script.
For all his pamphleteering, of course, Shaw was a master of witty dialogue and incisive characterization. Helen Carey is majestic as Barbara's mother, Lady Britomart Undershaft, serenely comfortable in her knowledge of right and wrong; Tom Story plays son Stephen as an overgrown little boy, constantly trying to anticipate his mother's needs and otherwise sulking and whining. The other showoff roles are Karl Kenzler as Adolphus Cusins, Barbara's nebbishy fiancé and a scholar of Greek, and Kevin O'Donnell as the empty-headed, foppish fiancé of Barbara's sister Sarah (Leah Curney).
Noone's scenic design makes full use of the wide, deep stage of Sidney Harman Hall to convey the gilded library of Lady Britomart's home, cluttered with books and pieces of art, with heavy curtains at the large windows; then the austere, Dickensian exterior of the Salvation Army shelter at West Ham, gray and grim; and finally the incongruously pastoral setting of Undershaft's munitions works.
Shakespeare Theatre Company