Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Ethan McSweeny
Produced by Shakespeare Theater Company
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
It’s starting to feel like a Shaw love-fest. Here he is again. This time it’s Major Barbara at the exquisitely designed Sidney Harman Hall of the Shakespeare Theater, directed by Ethan McSweeny, a hometown guy does good. McSweeny demonstrated his formidable shake ‘em up talents with The Persians several seasons back. So, how does he fare in breathing new life into this iconoclastic piece that everyone seems to have heard of even if not actually seen in production? He does fine with what he’s got to work with-it’s just that Shaw gives him an awful lot of material.
The large cast size (14) hints at the impending load of what’s in store (and might be one of the reasons why, despite its popularity, the play is not often produced.) In true Shaw fashion, where there are no “small parts,” each character represents a significant aspect of societal structure, social class and philosophical argument, and thus gets a chance to make their case, present their cause, and generally be heard. Which takes time. Plus, Shaw has packed his story with a Salvation Army bucket load of hotly debated controversial issues that could take life-times to wrestle through.
McSweeny has a keen sense of timing and keeps the production moving, pushing past stumbling blocks that could easily derail a less experienced and committed director. He handles all three acts which require three completely different sets with one intermission, clocking the production in at 2 hours 30 minutes-no easy feat. Furthermore, McSweeny is not afraid of poking laughter into what could be interminable moments and usually finds a spark of light-hearted fun in even the most dreadfully deadened situations. Such talents are particularly useful here because despite Shaw’s wit and repartee, he can still get bogged down hammering his various points. McSweeny’s light touch helps in those tough spots.
He is ably assisted by a mostly remarkable cast offering standout performances. Helen Carey and Tom Story play mother and son Undershaft with devilish delight. What those two accomplish with non-verbals and reactions alone is a marvel, let alone when they actually deliver their dialog like well placed volleys which zing and zoom straight down the lines. Carey’s Lady Undershaft has the exquisite bearing of upper class nobility while also somehow relaying a subtle vulnerability, as if she could splatter in a pratfall at any minute. She’s an absolute marvel to behold. Story as her son Stephen could be channeling David Hyde Pierce’s Niles Frazier, complete with just enough self-absorbed gentle snobbery, double-takes, fits and starts with every utterance, phrase and gesture.
And of course, Ted van Griethuysen could talk convincingly to a lamp post and still come across as sane as they come. From his perfectly announced entrance as the long-discounted (though monied) father to his heated arguments extolling the wonders of guns and money, Griethuysen delivers the goods, deadly and explosive notwithstanding. No one delivers a line like Sir G and Shaw’s arguments are absolute perfection for him. Scoffing his son’s innocent insistence about the clear distinction between right and wrong, Undershaft snaps out a reply that someone who thinks he knows everything and knows absolutely nothing is perfect suited for a political career. This is Shaw as Shakespeare as Oscar Wilde at its absolute best.
In supporting roles, Floyd King delivers a fine turn as one of the Salvation army attendants, Catherine Flye disappears into her character as one of the downtrodden unfortunates, and Jennifer Mendenhall brings an energetic zeal with her fun delivery as a fellow army associate. While Andrew Long kept up the gravely voiced decibel level a bit too long for my taste, Leo Erickson proved there are no small parts with a perfectly rendered two-second delivery as Morrison the butler.
And while the list goes on with other siblings and intendeds, and suitors and such, the key attraction, the name sake of the play is Major Barbara who must be the torch bearer for all conflicted souls everywhere on the journey towards self realization, self-actualization and ultimately truth. On a mission to save souls, she renounced her rich upbringing to serve the poor, only to have her idealism dashed to smithereens when funds to save the mission come from her munitions selling father and a benevolent liquor dealer. Her journey changes abruptly when her neat premises about survival and salvation are turned topsy turvey.
The actress bearing that mantle must have the fortitude, conviction and forcefulness to carry us all with her. For some inexplicable reason, Vivienne Benesch, as accomplished as she is, didn’t quite do it for me. She did and said all the right things, hit all the marks and made her impassioned pleas, but without sufficient sparkle or thrill for me sink my teeth into every time she took the stage. As with similar first named icons-Hedda, Nora and St. Joan, the actor playing this enormously challenging character must evoke more range than anybody on stage, going from zealot highs to soul-shaken lows. Barbara is often the focal point for all the arguments in the longish script, and her journey is the ultimate trip. Her rendition should be so compelling that the audience is completely engaged in her quest and exploring the combative issues with her, not entertaining wandering thoughts of what Mendenhall would do in that role.
As expected, all the design elements work beautifully, especially the drop-dead gorgeous set designed by James Noone effectively using the proscenium stage to depict the scrumptiously decorated parlor. It’s a work of art that merits applause when the curtain rises. The scene contrasts perfectly with the drab gray squalor of the Salvation Army mission that Barbara has adopted as her home base to salvage lost souls. Costume designer Robert Perdziola also splits his talents perfectly, contrasting the rich and to-die-for succulent attire for the Undershafts complete with spit polished shoes, top hat and tails with the threadbare rag muffins at the mission. Even the tried and steady Salvation Army uniforms add the necessary doses of pragmatic realism as the characters mix with the rich and infamous strolling in their undulating folds of fabric, polish, crystal and shine. You couldn’t ask for more perfect physical renditions of the conflicts inherent in the play.
The issues raised in Major Barbara about financial gain from questionable market-driven ventures, the moral value and core of our decisions, and the eerie premonitions about “weapons of mass destruction” couldn’t be more relevant here and now. Having an opportunity to see his work crafted on the premiere stage of the Shakespeare Theater is an ultimate theatrical thrill.
Running Time: 2:30
When: Thru March 23
Where:, Sidney Harman Hall, Washington Shakespeare Theater, 610 F. Street, N.W., Washington, DC
Tickets: $30- 65
Call: 202.547.1122 or consult the website