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Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2010

‘Major Barbara’ Displays Wit of APT, G.B. Shaw

Theater Review

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Ideologies collide and the morality of money is much debated in George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, American Players Theatre’s final offering this season. Director David Frank, also APT’s artistic director, has trimmed some snarls from the Shavian narrative, resulting in a brighter performance wrapping an otherwise knotted, sociological debate.

War profiteer Andrew Undershaft (Jonathan Smoots) and daughter Barbara (Colleen Madden), a Salvation Army major, find they have conflicting responses to one of poverty’s moral dilemmas: Is society better served by providing people with profitable munitions factory jobs or by saving people’s souls “with a Bible in one hand and a slice of bread in the other”? The pair agrees to test the thesis by visiting each other’s enterprises and letting the evidence be the judge.

In between declaration and denouement, we meet Undershaft’s family, which colors the debate with both style and substance. Estranged wife Lady Britomart (Sarah Day) seeks money from her husband so daughters Barbara and Sarah (Hillary Clemens) can respectively marry Adolphus Cusins (Jim DeVita), a poor academician, and Charles Lomax (Darragh Kennan), a foppish dandy and wealthy landowner. The resulting debates skewer the period’s sacred cows in Shaw’s usual witty fashion.

APT veterans Day, Madden, Smoots and DeVita once again offer top-notch performances, with DeVita making even more noise than usual with his big Salvation Army bass drum. Matt Schwader stands out as Bill Walker, who wanders drunkenly into the Salvation Army shelter looking for trouble, only to storm out after Undershaft donates 5000, convinced that social charities really rely on the wealthy for survival.

Well, of course they do. In Shaw—as in life—heroes are villains, villains heroes and turnabout is rarely fair play.

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