Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Major Barbara
Pear Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Michael Saenz and Monica Cappuccini
Photo by Ray Renati
The tiny, intimate Pear Theatre does not hesitate to undertake major plays usually produced on much bigger stages of much larger companies. When in the past couple of years the company has presented such plays as August: Osage County, Uncle Vanya, and Arcadia, the productions have received much acclaim from both audiences and reviewers like me. Once again Pear Theatre nobly and daringly ventures into a big-cast, multi-act play with Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw. Although there are scattered moments of acting brilliance sprinkled throughout, the overall effect this time is unfortunately a three-act, two intermission production that becomes more of a yawn-producing affair than Shaw's brilliant, still contemporarily relevant script deserves.

The evening actually begins with much spark and punch as the first scene opens in the parlor of the upper-class Undershaft family in 1905 London. Lady Undershaft (Monica Cappuccini) is aggressively scolding her 24-year-old son of his many habits she finds irritating (fiddling his tie, playing with his watch chain, repeating her words, etc., etc.) as she also tries to talk to him about her concerns for his and his two sisters' futures and fortunes. All along the way, Michael Saenz as Stephen Undershaft provides some of the evening's delights as he displays a myriad of twisted, smirked, and scrunched-up facial expressions that vividly reveal Stephen's inner but unspoken reactions to his mother's admonishments and requests. (Saenz is particularly hilarious in the ways his pupils sporadically wander to the corners of his eyes as his thick eyebrows dance a code that speaks louder than his wimpy words.)

After this initial, highly enjoyable, mother/son tête-è-tête, two sisters and to-be brothers-in-law enter the drawing room, still lorded over by Lady Undershaft with her highly aristocratic voice, stiff posture, and stately way of strutting about. She proceeds to inform her shocked brood of offspring and their intendeds that her estranged husband and their long-absent, tycoon father is about to arrive.

The gathered clan is a curious menagerie of upper-class sorts. Barbara (Briana Mitchell) is a preaching "major" for the Salvation Army (in full uniform), and her fiancé Adolphus Cusins (Bryan Moriarty) is a Greek scholar who refers with a highly affected air to Dionysus whenever he gets a chance. Daughter Sarah (Becca Gilbert) is beautiful enough but seemingly without a lot of depth. Her boyfriend Charles Lomax (Michael Weiland) is a wisecracker who likes to use jargon like "kid" and "thick," which irritates to no end the quick-to-interrupt-and dismiss-him Lady Undershaft.

None of the group is too eager to see/meet the father of the household, Andrew Undershaft, a man who has made untold wealth manufacturing munitions for the wars around the globe, selling to whatever and even both sides of conflicts as long as there is ample payment. He also, according to his wife, has no intention of leaving his estate to anyone in the family—and especially not to her favorite, son Stephen. It seems that a long tradition in the Undershaft heritage has been for each generation to identify a poor "foundling" and adopt him to become the next leader of the family's industries—exactly what happened to this lowly born, current owner and head of this household. That is a tradition that Lady Undershaft is out to change forthwith.

The genial, broad smiling, and rather bombastic patriarch arrives in the form of Todd Wright as Andrew Undershaft. The first act ends well enough as he bumbles through, trying to identify who is who among children he has not seen in decades, as he becomes immediately fascinated with his evangelizing and militaristic daughter, and as he quite firmly rejects anything to do with the son his wife so wants him to adore as does she.

However, as the second act moves to Major Barbara's place of work and worship, a lowly mission in the worst part of London, this production begins to flatten and falter. As some actors of the first act shift from aristocracy to commoners of various sorts, the shifts do not always totally work. Previously smart-alecky and funny as Charles, Michael Weiland becomes a brutish, out-of-work bully, Bill Walker, who smacks around women but too often just shouts his lines without much convincing of why he is so mad. Becca Gilbert becomes even meeker (and less memorable) than Sarah as Salvation Army worker Jenny Hill, while Monica Cappuccini, highly convincing as Lady Undershaft in the first act, looks and sounds out of sorts as the Salvation Army's high commander, Mrs. Baines.

Faring better is Michael Saenz as he becomes a born-again Snobby Price who has hoodwinked the ladies of the mission to believe in his conversion in order to assure himself some free vittles. All the time he is professing the Lord, he is winking on the side and egging on another faking converted who is also just out for some hot broth, Rummy Mitchens (played with noteworthy bluster by Vanessa Alvarez).

Andrew Undershaft, "a confirmed mystic," is a man who proudly declares, "I am a millionaire. That is my religion." For him, the two common things in all religions are "money and gunpowder," both of which he believes are superior to organized religion's hope and charity in aiding the poor by ensuring factory workers and battling soldiers.

That puts him in direct conflict with the war-hating, classics-loving Adolphus; with the not-interested-in-anything-but-my-welfare Stephen; and especially with the highly moralistic, religiously pious Barbara. However, in Shaw's world these opposites begin to find ways of crossing over to the others' sides in unexpected and highly entertaining ways.

Much of the potential humor and heart as well as the scripted Shavian politics and philosophies should emerge from the interactions between the father and his son, his daughter Barbara, and her husband-to-be, Adolphus. What is too often missing in this production in these paired interactions is consistently delivered dialogue that does not sound as if more in rehearsal than in final presentation. Shaw's rich lines are too often spoken as if being read and do not sound as if they are internalized fully in the character being portrayed. This seems to be particularly true in the final act where the family gathers at the father's foundry to determine just who will inherit the business (and the potential for more fortune-gaining).

As the title character Major Barbara, Brianna Mitchell is competent, steady, and, after a while, highly predictable in tone and demeanor. She, however, is not a Barbara who grabs and holds audience attention with a personality and a purpose that is memorable. This Barbara is too much milk toast and not enough fire and passion—at least not in ways that will be recalled a week from now. She is certainly a worthy and passable Major Barbara; but Ms. Mitchell has not been guided in ways to shake up the congregation/audience, bring them to the edge of their seats, and leave them cheering for more.

There is too often energy, sparkle, and zip missing that is usually so much a part of Shaw's comedy. Even when everyone is shouting at the top of his/her lungs, this production under Elizabeth Kruse Craig's leadership and vision can seem a bit too dull and quiet.

Unfortunately, some of the scenic choices by Ms. Craig (who doubles as scenic co-designer along with Norm Beamer) also do not help the evening's credibility. A projected back screen of a chandelier on a red wall is frankly distracting, and a final act's cannon is just too funny looking to help set the proper scene. Much better and very well done are all the costumes of the early 1900s created by Elly Jessop for both the rich and the poor as well as the righteously religious and the sinners among them. Gordon Smith's background music and sounds set the right time period and effect. Sara Sparks' lighting design fares well on the small stage and among the three acts.

For those who have never seen Shaw's Major Barbara, Pear Street's current rendering is certainly going to remind them why the Nobel Prize winner for literature is in fact one of the past century's greatest and most loved playwrights as well as introduce them to one of his most loved stories and set of quirky characters. For those who have seen other, more-memorable productions, this may be a revisit that is OK to skip, though the production's first act does make it a fairly worthwhile outing.

Major Barbara continues through November 20, 2016, at Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View. Tickets are available at or by calling 650-254-1148.

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