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A CurtainUp Review
I'm happy to report that's what we have with the Gingold Theatrical Group and the Pearl Theatre Company's latest production of one of George Bernard Shaw's most popular plays, Major Barbara: great play, towering genius, and a thoroughly professional cast and crew. The result is a tremendous production.
The product of a new adaptation by director David Staller, drawing upon Shaw's nine drafts of the 1905 play, 1941 film screenplay and notes and letters, Major Barbara emphasizes the difficulty of finding one's moral compass in a complicated and uncertain world. Andrew Undershaft (Dan Daily), a highly successful weapons manufacturer, has been kept away from his children for most of their lives, but as the play begins he is invited back to meet the family-in part so his wife, the formidable Lady Britomart Undershaft (Carol Schultz), can secure more money from him for her children's marriages. Each one has his or her eccentricities, but the strongest of all Undershaft's offspring is his daughter Barbara (Hannah Cabell), a major in the Salvation Army. Her belief in salvation (and strength in pursuing it) seems unshakeable, and so her father suggests a sort of wager: he will visit her shelter, while she will visit his weapons factory, and they will determine who should be most influenced by the other.
It all sets up as a clear moral debate, but predictably, Shaw is deeply suspicious of easy answers. Undershaft is an unrepentant war profiteer, unwilling to accept even polite attempts to excuse his profession, but his passion against the "sin" of poverty-and his obvious care for his daughter-makes it difficult to condemn him entirely. Barbara, on the other hand, is in some ways the most insufferable and rigid type of moralizer, but her courage and cleverness are deeply admirable…and, in a very real way, her position on the immorality of war is compelling no matter one's religious convictions. In fact nearly all of the characters in the play are sympathetic in some way, largely because Shaw's sympathy for them is so apparent in every line even as he condemns their provincialism and small-mindedness. And his indictment of the military-industrial complex and religious opposition to it-while often being funded by the same-is both funny and devastating.
In a way the Pearl is a perfect company for a play like this. Its experience, professionalism and continued emphasis on faithfulness to the playwright's intentions is unmatched, and thus Shaw is in good hands from the start. The cast is uniformly excellent: in particular Daily, whose nuanced interpretation of a person it would be easy to condemn is extremely impressive, and especially Cabell, whose rendering of Barbara as a strong, sometimes frustrating but always compelling figure with surprising moments of warmth and tenderness is absolutely superb. Staller, whose adaptation of the script is comprehensive and tightly managed, maintains the perfect balance of moving the action along briskly without rushing past Shaw's incredible insights into the British (and human) condition.
It's difficult but not impossible to foul up one of Shaw's plays: misread it as a Restoration-style comedy of manners and you'll end up with a snoozefest to beat the band. But let Shaw's wit sparkle, and give his characters to actors who understand how to inhabit a role with grace, humor and compassion, and you'll get a work of great depth and power. It's a pleasure to see the Pearl still hasn't forgotten these facts in its production of Major Barbara, and an even greater pleasure to see one of the better revivals of the year. I recommend it without reservation.