Shaw’s ‘Major Barbara,’ at the Hilberry Theatre, anticipates class struggle
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The Victorian playwright George Bernard Shaw embraced an intellectual stance that challenged even the most ingrained cultural conventions. His iconic wit and social criticism is epitomized in the classic satire, Major Barbara, currently running in repertory at the Hilberry Theatre.
Although he was a self-identified socialist and a mouthpiece for the Fabian Society, Shaw was quick to lampoon social hypocrisy or weak idealisms wherever he found them. And that is what makes his plays so fascinating and continuously relevant. The trite expression “ripped from today’s headlines” comes to mind, even though Shaw wrote this play more than 100 years ago.
In this delightful production of Major Barbara, directed by award-winning University of Michigan-Flint theatre professor Carolyn Gillespie, the arguments of the “99%” and the “1%” are given equal voice. In fact, in typical Shavian form, we are given a three-point perspective – head, heart and soul, if you will – voiced by the wealthy industrialist, the poet scholar and the liberal social worker.
It’s the story of millionaire armaments dealer Andrew Undershaft, whose declared religion is “money and gunpowder.” His daughter Barbara is a devout Major in the Salvation Army and sees her father as just another soul to save. Her fiancé, the Greek scholar Adolphus Cusins, is something of a go-between – he loathes the evil men do with Undershaft’s products, yet understands the truth at the heart of what Undershaft says. There is freedom in power and slavery in poverty. The workers in the utopic Undershaft munitions factory are well-paid, enjoy generous benefits, and choose to go to one of the two Methodist churches placed in their community. Barbara sadly compares this to the poor souls who offer her their souls out of desperation for bread and shelter. And she is forced to acknowledge that even in her humble mission, the bread is ultimately paid for by the whiskey brewers, the arms dealers and other “tainted” industrialist millionaires.
Gillespie gives us a visual metaphor that drives the point home in an inescapable manner. Although the costumes by Jessica Van Essen use beautiful period designs, the set by Rudolph C. Schuepbach relies on crude crates that are moved about and stacked by the cast members as the scenes change. These wooden boxes represent both the lavish furnishings of the privileged classes and the spare rooms of the Salvation Army shelter. In Act III , when the characters visit Undershaft’s munitions works, we realize that these crates are from the arms factory. Both the extravagant manor of Undershaft’s family and the humble mission for the poor are furnished by the sale of gunpowder, cannons and the tools of war.
Gillespie sums up the central conflict of the play by noting, “We have not yet – or perhaps never will – solved the problem of poverty or the complexities of the relationships between politics, industry, economics, and the military – what has been called the ‘military-industrial complex’ in some eras. On another level, the play challenges us to find a third option for seemingly irresolvable conflicts. Shaw, like Brecht after him, asks us to envision change and political action in the face of unacceptable social constructions. There is something terribly wrong in Undershaft’s vision of the world, but we are not enlightened enough – or courageous enough – to find it. That’s what I want the audience to walk away thinking about.”
The Hilberry company is always a joy to watch as they embrace new roles, new dialects and new dramatic situations. Edmund Alyn Jones, as Undershaft, gives us a likeable rascal and “Prince of Darkness” who perfectly complements Danielle Cochrane’s Barbara – an intelligent and grounded “angel.” Brent Griffith, as Adolphus Cusins, embraces his role as the scholar who does not take himself too seriously – yet seriously studies the world about him.
The cast for Major Barbara also includes: Alec Barbour (Charles Lomax), Christopher Call (Bilton), Megan Dobbertin (Jenny), Christopher Ellis (Morrison), Sara Hymes (Sarah), Andrew Papa (Bill Walker), Topher Payne (Stephen), Joshua Blake Rippy (Snobby Price), Vanessa Sawson (Lady Britomart/ Rummy Mitchens), David Sterritt (Peter Shirley), and Lorelei Sturm (Mrs. Baines). The production team includes: Carolyn Gillespie (Director), Dana Gamarra (Stage Manager), Rudolph C. Schuepbach (Scenic Designer), Jessica Van Essen (Costume Designer), Brian Scruggs (Lighting Designer) and Alexandra Stewart (Publicity Manager).
This sharp comedy runs in rotating repertory at the Hilberry with Summer and Smoke until May 5, 2012. Tickets are $12-$30 and are available by calling the Hilberry Theatre Box Office at (313) 577-2972, requesting tickets online or by visiting the box office at 4743 Cass Avenue on the corner of Hancock.