Faith, power at odds in Hilberry’s ‘Barbara’
By Lawrence B. Johnson, Special to The Detroit News
Read original article here.
Two different kinds of armies meet on an unusual battlefield in George Bernard Shaw’s play “Major Barbara.” At stake are human souls, and an estranged father’s relationship with his daughter.
One force is the Salvation Army, represented by an idealistic young woman called Barbara Undershaft; the other is the industrial might of a munitions manufacturing complex, embodied in the woman’s father, who owns the company. Part moral commentary and part comedy, and thus classic Shaw, “Major Barbara” takes over the Hilberry Theatre stage Friday night.
“‘Major Barbara’ is always timely,” says Carolyn Gillespie, retired professor of theater at the University of Michigan-Flint, who directs the Hilberry production. “It deals with dark nights of the soul and the need to face the future with intelligence and grace in the face of conflicting ideologies. Does that sound familiar in this election cycle?”
Conflict is everywhere, and it first springs into view when Barbara’s mother realizes that to ensure the security of her daughters, she must seek help from her estranged millionaire husband, Undershaft, who has not seen his children since they were small. He is impressed by Barbara’s kind but authoritative manner at the Salvation Army center and offers a very substantial contribution.
Far from grateful, Barbara is offended by the idea of this Christian institution in effect accepting help from the devil. But she is overruled by her superior, who jumps at so generous a donation.
It remains for Barbara to come to grips with the compromises of the real world, even as her father comes to appreciate her devotion to work for which the remuneration is spiritual rather than material.
“Shaw called it a comedy, but today we might be inclined to see it as drama,” says Gillespie. “It is what it is. Shaw’s comedies are challenging. You have to love language to love Shaw. ‘Major Barbara’ is a play about ideas shaped by argument. It’s about politics and religion, which means it isn’t a polite play because those things aren’t discussed in polite society.
“But it’s also a play about power, the destructive power of a munitions factory and the potential of spiritual power. Barbara sees her powerful father as just another soul to be saved.”
Indeed, part of the charm Barbara holds for Danielle Cochrane, the first-year Hilberry student who plays the role, is her willingness to grapple with her father on equal terms.
“I think a lot of young people wouldn’t do that,” says Cochrane. “Barbara is so full of life, but she’s also young and starts at a place where she’s sure of everything she knows and believes. Then we see these dings, dents and scratches to her armor — her belief system — and the way she adjusts.”
As for the Shavian comedy-drama conundrum, Cochrane sees it as a serious play leavened with human folly.
“It’s akin to real life,” she says. “These are normal people who lead happy lives, suddenly confronted by this huge moral dilemma.”
Lawrence B. Johnson is a cultural writer and critic. firstname.lastname@example.org