Right is right and wrong is wrong, one character opines, but that delineation isn't nearly so clear cut in George Bernard Shaw's "Major Barbara."
American Conservatory Theater's production focuses on the moral ambiguities and ironies as the title character, a major in the Salvation Army, finds herself at odds with her long-absent father, a wealthy manufacturer of weapons and gunpowder.
Barbara Undershaft (Gretchen Hall) and her father, Andrew Undershaft (Dean Paul Gibson), are reunited at the behest of her mother, Lady Britomart Undershaft (Kandis Chappell). Because Barbara and her sister, Sarah (Elyse Price), are both involved with men of little means, Lady Undershaft wants their father, her estranged husband, to provide for them. She also wants him to designate their son, Stephen (Stafford Perry), as his successor in the business, but both men understand that Stephen has no head for business.
However, Andrew is impressed with Barbara's sincerity when it comes to saving souls, so he agrees to visit the Salvation Army shelter where she works if she will visit his factory in return.
The shelter attracts some desperately poor people, some of whom say that Barbara has saved their souls, but the real reason they say so is that they need the bread she feeds them. Barbara's superior, Mrs. Baines (Jennifer Clement), arrives with news that a wealthy distiller will make a generous donation if other wealthy men agree to match it. Barbara would reject the money because it comes from someone whose product contributes to so many of the problems she sees at the shelter. Then when her father matches the amount, she's so dismayed that she leaves the Army.
Still, she agrees to visit his factory along with the rest of the family the next day. Andrew has built a pleasant town for his workers, pays them well and provides generous benefits for them and their families. The money may be tainted in Barbara's eyes, but if it weren't for their jobs at Andrew's factory, they would become impoverished, just like the people at the shelter, he says.
Andrew makes compelling arguments and no excuses for his line of work. Despite lives lost, war brings him money, lots of it, and the power to use it for good if he so chooses. His power also can buy politicians and the ability to create war or peace, whichever suits his purpose at the time.
Besides debating Barbara, who may not be equal to his strength in this production, Andrew matches philosophical wits with her fiance, Adolphus Cusins (Nicholas Pelczar). He's a professor of Greek who joined the Salvation Army just to be near Barbara.
This ACT production is presented in association with Theatre Calgary, where it will go after its San Francisco run. It's directed by the Canadian company's artistic director, Dennis Garnhum, and features a cast of American and Canadian actors.
Despite solid performances by Hall as Barbara and Gibson as Andrew and the rest of the cast, the play's most memorable performance comes from Chappell as the imperious, blunt Lady Undershaft.
The early 20th century costumes, so elegant for the upper crust, are by Alex Jaeger, with a set by Daniel Ostling (the bombs in the factory are scary), lighting by Alan Brodie and sound by Scott Killian.
Even though the three-act play (one intermission) is more than 100 years old, much of it rings true today, leading to many sounds of recognition in the opening night audience. "Major Barbara" is a timely, thought-provoking addition to the ACT season.
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