One great thing about theater is that it is iterative, constantly being forged and reforged so it has immediate relevance to our social realities and problems. Major Barbara from Pallas Theatre Collective, a slight redux of George Bernard Shaw’s classic, aims to do just that by setting the play in DC during the 1930’s Bonus Army protests, but at the same time, very consciously thinking about the current crisis of protests in Baltimore.
Shaw’s polemically socialist play is not just an excellent fit for the class and race-based strife of today, but it also a bold programming choice from production director and Artistic Director Ty Hallmark (and the Pallas Theatre Collective) since the epic size of Shaw’s work and its turn-of-the-twentieth-century mustiness could turn off some audiences.
But Shaw’s ideas are still relevant, as this production proves. The story focuses on the Undershaft family, a mother and three children estranged from their wealthy patriarch, Andrew Undershaft. They, out of need of money, become reunited with him despite their distaste for his arms-manufacturing business. Mr. Undershaft, whose religion is “money and gunpowder,” forms an opposite moral pole from the eponymous Major Barbara, Undershaft’s daughter, who receives her title from her position in the Salvation Army, where her faith is based on charity and non-violence. This dichotomy forms the spine of the play, which is not as much about its relatively predictable plot or mostly flat character, but about the interesting ideas those characters espouse with Grade A elegance (or contrasting roughness as the case may be).
Julia Morrissey as Major Barbara has such elegance, and some of the most charming moments of the show are when she preaches charity and soul-saving with one side of her mouth, but then uses foxy and erudite manipulation to achieve her ends. David Dubov as Andrew Undershaft (and one of the adaptors of the play as well) shows a similar duplicity, but from the opposite way: his natural warmth and kindness create knee-jerk sympathy for his character, even when he describes the death wrought by his products.
Most of the rest of the cast fall between these leads, executing the ideas of their characters in a very Shavian way, that is, as the embodiment of a philosophy rather than a true character. Annette Mooney Wasno plays the moralistic and domineering mother, and Will Hawkins her favorite nebbish and clingy son. Kathleen Mason does well as the aloof daughter Sarah, and her affiancef, Axle Burtness’ Charlie Lomax, suffers somewhat from his character type (the “man about town”) having faded into obsolescence over the 100 plus years since Major Barbara’s premiere.
More interesting are some of the side characters, including Barbara’s affianced, Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins (played with a nice combination of stiffness and wildness by Ian Blackwell Rogers). Dolly has the advantage of being one of the most perceptive and humorous characters, easy to like for the laughs he provides and with a nice depth that comes not because he sees through deception, but from his own deceptiveness. Rogers keeps this epically long play moving and dynamic, and there are times when he has to carry whole scenes, which he does well.
Some really nice acting work comes from the lower class characters though. Steve Beall as laid-off old man Peter Shirley nails his rough-and-tumble factory worker physicality and cherishes his time on stage, to the audience’s benefit: he’s found some heart-breaking moments of pure emotion in a play that is mostly an intellectual slugfest. Taunya Ferguson finds that emotion, too, especially as gravelly poor woman Rummy Michens, but her skill really shines through when she changes character to Mrs. Baines (Barbara’s superior in the Salvation Army). Her discipline and use of vocal resonators really impressed me.
The best work comes from the hardest character to play: Bill Walker, played by Brian McDermott, the drunk self-loathing woman-beater. It is hard, very hard, as an actor to be introduced as a character who brutally beats two very likeable and helpless women onstage, yet make that character, steadily and surely, evolve into someone that the audience acknowledges as a human being (let alone sympathizes with). But McDermott completes this arc almost without me noticing, using his body well to constantly redefine Bill Walker. What he does is exceptional in this play: McDermott truly lives in the body of his character, not just his mind. If you see this play, your eye will be drawn to him from his first entrance, when he comes on as a dangerous, animalistic predator in human skin.
While I wish there was more of that in this production, the creative team is not really to blame for it. Shaw’s work is famously intellectual and dry, and this production follows that lead: from the plain and indicative projections of news articles pre-show to the relatively uncut voluminous prose of Shaw’s early 20th century world. I wish that Dubov and fellow adaptor Dr. Michael Mullen O’Hara had taken a chainsaw to this play, rather than a scalpel, when it came to editing. Too much humor felt untranslated and too many beats felt repetitive.
Most of us are too far away from high school history to really care about the Bonus Army of the 1930’s, though not being alienated by the Britishness of the original play was nice. I would rather see this play brought to present day and given contemporary breath and diction. Though that task is more difficult than the one set by Pallas, it would be more worth doing.
That isn’t to say that this production isn’t worth the trip, just that you should go with certain expectations. This play is for people who love discussions (especially about religion), who relish the chance for a leisurely argument on morality over a bottle of wine. This is a play for Facebook ranters, whose comments and tweet replies stretch into double digit numbers and dozens of lines. This is a play for patient debaters, and if you’re one of those, you will love this play.
Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw . Adapted by David Dubov and Dr. Michael Mullen O’Hara (President, International Shaw Society) . Directed by Ty Hallmark . Featuring Julia Morrissey, Annette Mooney Wasno, David S Dubov-Flinn Will Hawkins, Kathleen Mason, Ian Rogers, Axle Burtness, Dane Petersen, Steve Beall, Taunya Ferguson, Loren Bray, and Brian McDermott . Produced by Pallas Theatre Collective . Reviewed by Alan Katz.