‘Major Barbara’ shows little has changed in 109 years
My father wanted me to taste everything that wasn’t life threatening and become a well-rounded member of the literati.
So he took me at age 8 to “Man and Superman,” George Bernard Shaw’s battle of the sexes comedy.
The play was way, way over my head.
And way, way too long.
I eventually became hooked on Shavian wit anyway (though I didn’t learn where the “v” came from when the form of the Irish playwright’s name was changed).
I also became hooked on theater as a whole, and I did understand why: It could instantly transport me into an alternate world or lifestyle, one I’d not experienced before (and might never, in fact, experience in “real” life).
Seeing the new American Conservatory Theater production of Shaw’s “Major Barbara” instantly transported me backward, to those halcyon days of my youth, into a mental place that caused me now to smile throughout the 109-year-old play (which I’d first watched half a century ago).
In short, I enjoyed it.
Yet somehow the talky ACT political comedy — despite impeccable performances, set and costuming — came off as too intellectual and (even with ostensibly passionate speeches) too impassionate.
I had the feeling it too frequently tickled my cerebral cells rather than my funnybone.
Besides, being in a theater for 2 hours and 40 minutes, was slightly more than my hindquarters could comfortably endure — although the play itself didn’t feel long at all.
“Major Barbara” unfortunately proves, however, that not much has changed in 109 years, especially if you consider the growing gap between ultra-rich and ultra-poor, the continued cynicism of business (particularly regarding the manufacture of weaponry), and the blind zeal that religious faith can spawn.
The storyline is straightforward: Barbara Undershaft (Gretchen Hall), daughter of a ruthless millionaire whiskey distiller and bomb manufacturer (Dean Paul Gibson as Andrew Undershaft), is happily saving souls within the framework of the Salvation Army.
But when her father buys favor through a big donation, she quits — even as the plutocrat’s money saves the mission and leads to 117 conversions in a single day.
Her subsequent quest for reconciliation and inner peace shapes what, in the final analysis, becomes the crux of this morality play.
Along the way, the two leads are superbly supported by Kandis Chappell, who steals the show with her hilarious performance of Barbara’s controlling mother, Lady Britomart Undershaft, and Nicholas Pelczar as Adolphus Cusins, who adores and virtually stalks heroine Barbara.
Not one person in the 15-member cast, in fact, is anything but excellent.
Aiding the theatrical illusions, the massive, mobile set by Daniel Ostling is incredibly effective (though sometimes dwarfing the actors).
And costuming by Alex Jaeger leaves no doubt about the era of the action.
The show is a co-production with Theatre Calgary, a Canadian troupe. Its director, Dennis Garnhum, has noted that the result is what happens when “two theaters from two countries…share our similarities and our differences.”
He’s written, too, that he and Carey Perloff, ACT’s artistic director, selected ‘Major Barbara’ for the same reason: its “overwhelming relevance” to 2014.
Garnhum, not incidentally, managed to extract every possible laugh from the script, then added a few of his own via direction that underscores the inherent humor by means of an exaggerated glance or toss of the head.
While most of the themes tackled by Shaw resonate currently, his women display leadership qualities but few touches of feminism. Early on, for example, the matronly head of family states succinctly (while trying to encourage her son to take more familial responsibility):
“I am only a woman.”
Similar to most episodes of “Law and Order,” Shaw outlines both sides of each issue yet, ultimately, makes sure his thought process isn’t left to the fancies of an audience: Consider when the father proclaims that poverty is “the worst of crimes” and that poor people “kill the happiness of society.”
The playwright’s sharpest tools aren’t polemics, though. They’re swift, clever banter between characters, and they’re sarcastic or sardonic outbursts.
Shaw, of course, was an Irish playwright with well-defined opinions, a writer who won both the Nobel Prize for literature and an Oscar (for “Pgymalion,” the film forerunner of the hit Broadway musical, “My Fair Lady”). His creations, it could be argued, cleared the path for latter-day theatrical masters such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Tom Stoppard.
A perfect sidelight: An honest-to-goodness, four-piece Salvation Army band played outside the theater before the show, its familiar strains foreshadowing a major component of “Major Barbara.”
And a last thought: Barbara’s father’s consistent intimidations were strikingly reminiscent of recent bullying by a New Jersey governor.
“Major Barbara” plays at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco, through Feb. 2. Performances Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Tuesdays, 7 or 8 p.m.; matinees, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets: $20 to $140. Information: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org.