Hilberry’s ‘Major Barbara’ ably mixes comedy and political bite
By John Monaghan, Detroit Free Press Special Writer
Read original article here.
“Major Barbara” is one of playwright-social reformer George Bernard Shaw’s most biting and preachy works. Long tracts of ideological dialogue sometimes make the 1905 play feel more like a political debate than a laugh-out-loud comedy.
The current Hilberry Theatre production fortunately locates the laughs in Shaw’s still-timely satire, which pits the soul-saving Barbara (Danielle Cochrane), a major in the Salvation Army, against her munitions-manufacturing father, Undershaft (Edmund Alyn Jones). Even on opening night, the young Hilberry cast had the timing down as characters came to verbal and even physical blows in making their points about war, religion and, especially, class structure.
The über-rich Undershaft is set to name a successor, but remains committed to a longstanding tradition that the business be turned over not to his children but to a foundling. This doesn’t sit well with Lady Britomart (Vanessa Sawson), who has been estranged from her husband for years and insists that their son Stephen (Topher Payne) get the job.
Not surprisingly, Undershaft doesn’t even recognize his own children when he pays a rare visit to the family. But he is intrigued by Barbara’s disdain for him, so much so that he agrees to visit the Salvation Army mission where she works. When he offers to make a sizable donation to her cause, Barbara is outraged, refusing to take money that was made from weapons.
The Hilberry actors, all Wayne State University graduate students, are surprisingly adept at playing characters old and young. David Sterritt, mostly cast this season in fresh-faced roles, is especially convincing as a middle-aged mission convert. Cochrane assumes the Barbara role with ease and more than holds her own with her self-assured father. As Undershaft, Jones (so impressive in “Richard III” last year) again proves his versatility. Sporting a bit of gray at the temples and a rich man’s swagger, he rolls through some of Shaw’s most famous lines. Asked to state his religion, he says “millionaire.” The two things necessary for salvation? “Money and gunpowder.”
Everyone in the cast has been aided by dialect coach Cheryl Turski, especially Sawson, who plays dual roles. In Act I, she must employ the clipped syllables of dowager Lady Britomart. Later, when she appears as mission denizen Rummy Mitchens, she has to be convincingly cockney.
Rudolph C. Schuepbach’s set employs stackable munitions crates that serve as furniture in the various scenes. Painted with red arrows mostly pointed upward (perhaps heavenward), they work well in the mission scenes, less so in Lady B’s stately home, where only a curtain and gilded picture frame hint at luxury.
The climax of “Major Barbara” takes place in the Undershaft munitions factory, where missiles rise like organ pipes above the stage and a cannon points into the audience. This is the moment in the show where the design and the acting truly come together.
“Major Barbara” ends on a happy note in terms of both plot and production. The issues it raises, however, are still playing out on the world stage.
CONTACT FREE PRESS SPECIAL WRITER JOHN MONAGHAN: MADJOHN@EARTHLINK.NET
More Details: ‘Major Barbara’
* * *
out of four stars
In rotating repertory through May 15
4743 Cass Ave., Detroit