One of the strangest things about George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara—now showing on the Guthrie’s proscenium stage—is how, more than 100 years after the play was written, its polemics on the nature of religion, good, and evil still resonate. Positively the strangest thing about it, though, is how daring and irreverent Shaw’s evisceration of religious piety feels today, especially concerning wealthy people who profess allegiance to a higher power than money.
Because religiosity has become such a central part of the global conversation on survival these days, such a play, if it were written now, would look uncomfortably like a frontal assault on right-wing Republicans, Halliburton executives, architects of the war in Iraq, religious zealots of all kinds, and anyone else in the world who eats righteous indignation for breakfast. Fortunately, Shaw was an equal opportunity offender, so he has just as much fun exposing the hypocrisies of liberal academics, idealistic know-it-alls, do-gooders, overbearing mothers, spoiled children, war protesters, and—ahem—journalists. Heck, Shaw even takes pot shots at the homeless, so if your ego ends up feeling a little bruised when the final curtain comes down, you won’t be alone.
At the heart of the play is a moral dilemma: An aristocratic family in England likes its position at the top of society, but that status is paid for entirely by their absentee millionaire father, whom none of them have ever met, and who happens to make his millions selling bombs, missiles, and cannons to the military. The play begins as the children are entering adulthood, thinking about getting married, and money—specifically, where it is going to come from—is suddenly becoming an urgent concern. The children are repulsed that their privilege has been bought with bombs and blood, but what they hate even more is the idea of being poor, so they are conflicted. The eldest son, Stephen (played by Joe Paulik), is too idealistic to accept the money, and the eldest daughter, Barbara (played by Sarah Agnew), has joined the Salvation Army in order to save the souls of poor people, whose lack of money is a clear sign that their souls need saving. In walks Andrew Undershaft, the imposing patriarch of the family (played by Paul O’Brien), and the war between idealism and realism begins.
The Guthrie’s production feels a bit bloated and sluggish at times, but once the setup is in place, the play hums along nicely, with fine—if sometimes over-the-top—acting from a number of players, including some great work in supporting roles by J. C. Cutler, Jonas Goslow, and Helen Halsey, standing in for Isabell Monk O’Connor. The set for a visit to Undershaft’s munitions factory in second act is particularly ingenious. It looks like a cross between a World War I Soviet propaganda poster, an M. C. Escher painting, and a toy factory, and is filled with Sisyphean workers who roll giant steel balls up a seemingly endless ramp to the heavens. The set is classic Guthrie eye candy, but it also unites many of the underlying themes of the play, so kudos to set designer Neil Patel.
This production takes place on the Guthrie’s midsized proscenium stage, so it feels more like a traditional play than it would if it were performed on the thrust stage. But don’t let that stop you from seeing it. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as laughing while one’s own beliefs and pretensions are being skewered. In this way, at least, Major Barbara has something for everyone.