It takes a playwright the caliber of George Bernard Shaw to make a self-described "manufacturer of mutilation and murder" sympathetic, but, incredibly, that's what he does in Major Barbara. American Players Theatre opened Shaw's 1905 play, a heady mix of ideology and comedy, as its last new show of the season.
That maker of mayhem is, of course, not Salvation Army Major Barbara herself, but her father, Andrew Undershaft. Undershaft owns Europe's largest munitions works, making canons, torpedoes and submarines. While he makes a pretty penny off of war, his estranged family lives an altogether different life.
Arriving at the elegant home of the wife he hasn't seen in years, Undershaft reacquaints himself with Lady Britomart and their three young-adult children. Stephen is a mama's boy who has yet to take a real interest in anything. Pretty Sarah is engaged to a dim-witted but likable fellow. And Barbara, who has devoted herself to the Salvation Army, ministers to the poor at a shelter in West Ham, a poor part of London.
Undershaft's reappearance in his family's life (to settle some financial matters with Lady Brit) is the catalyst for a crackling evening of theater that is full of big ideas and great humor. Religion, politics, charity and civilized values all take a drubbing from one angle or another. Few other than Shaw could make such potentially didactic material so entertaining.
It helps that APT's production is splendidly cast. As Undershaft, the excellent Jonathan Smoots develops from a somewhat wooden figure stiffly re-entering his family's life, to a passionate, rather extreme defender of his hard-headed, pragmatic view of the world.
Undershaft derides "Christmas-card morality," the warm, fuzzy sentiments of people who have never really been tested by life. Though now rich and powerful, Undershaft came from nothing (in an improbable quirk, ownership of the Undershaft munitions plant passes generation after generation not to one's son, but to a foundling such as he).
While Undershaft's cold acceptance of war and violence may be chilling, he's also seemingly free of hypocrisy. He knows how he earns his living and makes no apology for it. And his munitions factory provides decent-paying jobs for the employees who populate the tidy company town surrounding it.
When Barbara's fiancé, a charmingly goofy professor of Greek (Jim DeVita), dubs Undershaft "the Prince of Darkness" and "Machiavelli," there's a hint of admiration there.
As the title character, Colleen Madden gives Barbara an earnestness that is backed up by real strength. Playing Barbara as a misty-eyed do-gooder would have been all wrong. In her navy blue Salvation Army uniform, Barbara radiates commitment and purpose. During an extended confrontation with a thug who comes into the shelter (a menacing Matt Schwader), we see just what Barbara's made of.
It is this power (in contrast to her unremarkable siblings) that makes her such a perfect foil for a battle of world views with her father. On one side: bread, treacle, and alms for the poor. In the other corner: raw, unapologetic power.
If there are flaws within Major Barbara, they're mainly in the third act, which becomes bogged down in a debate between Undershaft and the professor. One wishes Shaw had streamlined this section; it lacks the rapid-fire zing of the first two.
The supporting roles add a lot of richness and dimension. Lady Britomart (Sarah Day) gives us a sense of where Barbara's determination comes from. Travis Knight and Tiffany Scott are highly enjoyable as a pair of ragamuffins in the West Ham shelter who are willing to feign salvation to win their daily bread. John Pribyl, as a ragged-beyond-his-years gentleman also at the shelter, holds on to a kind of chivalry despite his dashed circumstances.
Devon Painter's costumes and Nayna Ramey's scenic design also deserve special mention. When the play opens in Lady Brit's drawing room, things are almost literally black and white. At the end of the play, which takes place at the munitions works, ideas have been challenged, world views have been rattled, and both surroundings and clothing have become more colorful. As Shaw explores his themes in all their messy glory, the world is a more uncertain place, but more alive.
Helmed by APT artistic director David Frank, Major Barbara is roundly entertaining, yet meaty. How many of us get to keep our cherished values and virtues because we can, because our lives are largely free from the day-to-day struggle for survival? And does everybody have their price, no matter how much they claim to stand on principle?
No matter your views, Shaw keeps you on ever-shifting ground, and that's its own reward.