Rarely produced, “Major Barbara” remains one of Bernard Shaw’s most delectable duels of word and wit. Credit director and designer Tony Walton for adroit staging, handsome costumes and a tidy acting ensemble.
Verbal dexterity dominates Shaw’s brittle comedy, which launches into a heady discourse on marriage, religion, hypocrisy and poverty. Andrew Undershaft (Jack Ryland), a wealthy munitions manufacturer whose religion is “being a millionaire ,” attempts to convert his virtuous daughter Barbara (Melissa Errico) with a gift of money tainted from the sale of guns and cannons. Disillusioned, Major Barbara (of the Salvation Army) quits the mission, and upon visiting Undershaft’s vast empire, rather swiftly turns from sentimentalist to materialist.
Walton has bumped the play’s original 1905 setting up five years to illustrate the boom years on the eve of the first world war. The tycoon, moralizing that “the greatest of our evils and worst of our crimes is poverty,” also manages to recruit Barbara’s fiance, Adolphus Cusins (Boyd Gaines), as the adopted heir to his factory and fortunes.
The play is fueled by bombastic rhetoric and thorny barbs, and the actors, for the most part, have a keen grasp of English accents and period style. Some of the players double in roles, the most successful being Rob Sedgwick, who plays both a haughty and vacuous future son-in-law and a truculent man who storms the mission and bullies the women.
Gaines is terrific as the drum-beating Greek scholar, and Charlotte Moore scores as the acerbic Lady Britomart, Undershaft’s estranged wife, who spouts pious nonsense with delicious dither. Ryland is suave and articulate as the tycoon, and Schuyler Grant is fetching and poised as Barbara’s sister and the abused mission lass.
Errico invests the title role with a genial vulnerability and a touch of humanity, but missing is Barbara’s spunk and vitality. As Undershaft’s mousy, sanctimoniousson, Scott Beehner attempts goofy body language in lieu of the role’s haughty humor.
Talky as the play may be, Walton’s deft direction never stifles the action. On the small, two-sided corner stage, the tight and crafty settings shift from a cushy parlor with pleated satin curtains to a grubby soup kitchen and, for the final scene, a munitions factory.