Major Barbara

Remy Bumppo Theatre Company

at Victory Gardens Theater

It takes a real taste for irony to choose as your Christmas show a play that deconstructs, if it doesn’t completely debunk, the Salvation Army. But that’s precisely the kind of choice to be expected from Remy Bumppo. Last year its seasonal offering was Philip Barry’s Holiday, though the holiday of the title wasn’t Christmas. To those who feel stuffed with yuletide fare laden with conventional mores and morals, the company’s choice this year is a palate cleanser. And it explores morality more deeply than any holiday show–just one more sweet irony.

In Major Barbara, George Bernard Shaw spells out his views about war and religion in fire-and-brimstone terms that would do the Salvation Army credit. Christmas aside, the play could hardly be more timely. Its assaults on sanctimonious organized religions and on the notion that adversity builds character seem aimed directly at the Bush administration, which makes indifference to the poor a fine art while loudly professing its Christian virtues. The script’s clear-eyed views on war–especially the resonant claim that “Nothing is done in the world until men are ready to kill if it is not done”–makes a refreshing change from Pentagon propaganda, while Shaw’s dismissal of flag-waving sounds almost seditious in a post-September 11 world. And Remy Bumppo makes sure the arguments in this startingly current play come through with the clarity of a ringing bell.

Major Barbara is archetypal Shaw, substituting intellectual combat for action and character. The speeches are witty, and the conflict–between Undershaft, who’s grown rich manufacturing weapons, and his daughter, who disdains money–is rife with opportunities to expose hypocrisy, another seasonal pitfall. Undershaft proposes to give a portion of his millions to the Salvation Army, where his daughter labors to save souls. But Barbara is so horrified by what she perceives as his attempt to purchase salvation that she quits the organization when it accepts her father’s offer. She then visits his factory, a sort of English Pullman compound with worker housing and recreation centers, and decides to transfer her faith from God to gunpowder, helping people through employment instead of conversion.

Shaw allows the audience to decide whether this is a retreat from Barbara’s principles or an advance, along the way trashing every bromide masquerading as principle used to justify the actions of church or state. The entire play is a tug-of-war between professed morality and lived morality, between a philosophy of belief and a philosophy of action. Shaw also provides a few straw men just for laughs: a hothouse-flower son who champions adversity as a means of building other people’s characters, an idiotic son-in-law who embodies the smugness of the English ruling class, a wife who’s perfectly content to live on her husband’s ill-gotten gains provided they’re laundered through an endowment.

Every intellectual point gets its due in James Bohnen’s thoughtful (and agreeably expeditious) production. What’s missing is a sense of genuine emotion, the real struggle people feel in their attempts to do good, the real pain they experience when they fail. Major Barbara includes fascinating meditations on several complicated issues: the causal connection between philanthropy and the ills it purports to relieve; the ambiguous morality of knee-jerk rejections of violence; the hypocrisy of religions that recruit among the desperate instead of trying to persuade people who are warm and well fed. What the play doesn’t include is real people. That’s partly the fault of the text and partly of the production.

Substantial portions of Major Barbara are like imaginary conversations in which everyone is both astonishingly witty and astonishingly obliging, providing others with the perfect occasions for ripostes. If neither antagonist seems exactly human–well, that’s the price of intellectual rigor. But the text also provides moments of emotional truth, as when Undershaft tells his inconsolable daughter, “You’ve learned something, and that always feels at first like a loss.” This wonderful observation doesn’t ring true here because neither Undershaft’s love for his daughter nor hers for Christ seems truly lived.

Much of the problem is Barbara herself. Susan Bennett is a capable actress, but her Barbara seems a quixotic fool instead of a thoughtful, powerful person trying to walk the walk. On the page, Barbara is magnetic: confronted by skepticism, she never says what’s expected–and she’s all the more persuasive for that. But Bennett exhibits none of that irresistibility. No wonder she’s stymied by an immovable object like her father. David Darlow, whose sly unflappability is perfect for undermining others’ beliefs, nails Undershaft’s quick-wittedness. But he doesn’t convey the passion that makes the character insist on unpopular ideas and engage in contradictory conduct. (And on opening night, Darlow was still struggling with his lines, which must have been as distracting to him as it was to the audience.)

Overall the production suggests a Chinese Communist maxim: “The nail that sticks up shall be hammered down.” The characters who should be three-dimensional end up on the same flat plane as those who are meant to be caricatures. But the supporting cast does well; Bohnen gets especially fine performances from Shawn Douglass as Barbara’s swain Adolphus, Eric Slater as the idiot son-in-law, Bruch Reed as the childlike heir apparent, and Joe Foust as Bill Walker, a truculent visitor to the shelter whose encounter with Barbara changes his life. It’s Walker who prompts one of the most telling exchanges between father and daughter: while Barbara laments that this wife beater is merely trying to quiet his conscience instead of giving his soul to the Lord, her father points out that the man’s return visits to the shelter will likely prevent him from hitting his wife again. Here Shaw seems to take Undershaft’s side: be grateful you can help someone move forward rather than disappointed that his path isn’t the one you’d choose.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sara Levinson.