There’s never a season when a George Bernard Shaw play isn’t relevant, but right now – as scores of workers across the United States fight for a livable minimum wage – is an especially interesting time for a revival of Major Barbara. In his 1905 discourse, the playwright, a committed socialist, sees a compassionate side to capitalism and a cynical side to Christian charity. Director David Staller, a Shaw devotee, makes this Pearl Theatre production a pungent and playful exploration of values, one that can still provoke and challenge a modern audience.
To maintain family tradition, weapons manufacturer Andrew Undershaft (Dan Daily) must find a foundling to succeed him in the business and take on his name. (It’s how he got the job and became Andrew Undershaft.) A visit to the brood he left when his three children were small introduces him to daughter Barbara (Hannah Cabell), a major in the Salvation Army. She bursts with enthusiasm at the prospect of saving his soul, presuming that what her father does for a living means his ethics are questionable.
But Shaw doesn’t view charity work as strictly saintly stuff. When Barbara invites her father to a Salvation Army shelter, we meet a pair who’ve learned how to work the system by feigning salvation for food. Barbara doesn’t see this, however, so her faith in the purity of the organization shatters when her supervisor accepts money not only from an alcohol producer but from her father as well. How odd that Barbara’s faith is restored when she visits her father’s munitions factory with her fiancé, scholar Adolphus Cusins (Richard Gallagher), and the rest of her family. Far from exploiting his workers, Undershaft pays them decently and isn’t concerned with the state of their souls.
As characters ponder and debate what’s best for society and the individual, Staller’s lively production maintains that crucial balance between character and theme. Cabell’s Barbara bursts with authentic idealism; Daily makes Undershaft a cocksure but still jolly pragmatist; and Gallagher astutely embodies the reasoning academic.
All the action transpires on James Noone’s two-tiered black set, as Staller takes a playfully theatrical approach with the supporting cast, which includes both members of the Pearl’s resident acting company and nonmembers: Alec Shaw, Carol Schultz, Bradford Cover, Becky Baumwoll, Cary Donaldson and Robin Leslie Brown. They’re dually cast as Undershaft family members and servants as well as Salvation Army workers and their cases.
It’s a device that also underscores Major Barbara’s dual nature. Shaw seems to be saying that capitalism can serve the people as readily as charity if it chooses to do so. Too bad that in present-day America it often chooses not to.