Daily, Hannah Cabell and Richard Gallagher
by Deirdre Donovan
you see the folks from the Salvation Army ringing their bells this year for
donations to the poor, you just might muse upon Shaw’s young ambitious heroine
Major Barbara, the titular character from George Bernard Shaw’s play of the
same name. It is enjoying a new outing at the Pearl Theatre, in collaboration
with The Gingold Theatrical Group, with its founding artistic director David
Staller at the helm. Staller, who staged Shaw’s You Never Can Tell at
the Pearl last season, is in rare form here as he shakes out the master’s
social satire about faith, capitalism, and more.
in and around London, it tells the story of Barbara Undershaft, a well-bred
young woman who has left behind all worldly comforts to be a major in the
Salvation Army. She feeds the hungry, clothes the ragged, and saves souls for
eternity. Her “paradise of enthusiasm” fades, however, when her long-absent father
Andrew Undershaft, a wealthy munitions manufacturer, shows up and surprisingly
makes a large donation to the Salvation Army. His fiscal gift, coupled with
his worldview that “poverty is a crime,” disillusions his idealistic daughter
who always has believed that poverty can be ennobling and a path to
redemption. She at first hopes to convert her father from his warmongering and
capitalistic outlook. But she soon leaves the Salvation Army, visits her
father’s weapons factory, and reconsiders her religious convictions. Sound
like Shaw pulling the rug out from religious hypocrites? You betcha. The
pious Barbara becomes, of all things, more down-to-earth and dares to see the
world as it is, complete with war, weapons, and money, money, money.
photos by Richard
is a star turn for Staller. Although he did just fine directing last season’s You
Never Can Tell, this new effort reveals that he, not only can direct, but
deftly adapt a notoriously difficult Shavian play. Shaw himself penned nine
drafts of Major Barbara--and never felt satisfied with any of them.
Staller cited that he synthesized Shaw’s multiple versions and even drew on the
1941 film adaptation for his source. Well, the marriage of play scripts and
film works like a dream here.
direction isn’t the only thing to applaud in this revamped classic. The acting
ensemble, comprised of Pearl veterans and several guest artists, are in fine
fettle. The ever-reliable (and longtime resident actor) Dan Daily takes on the
tycoon Andrew Undershaft. While I have seen Daily undertake many roles in
former Pearl productions, he seems born to play Undershaft. In fact, according
to a recent “TDF Stages” article included in my press materials, he is no stranger to the play and has acted in it several times
before — and it shows in his confident stage delivery. Others who acquit
themselves well are Carol Schultz as Lady Britomart/Mrs. Baines, and Hannah
Cabell as the nominal character. There’s no miscasting, hogging the stage, or
going up on lines either.
shout out to James Noone’s elegant set. At first blush, it is a study in black
and gold: a tall double staircase bridged with a balcony that the ensemble will
descend gracefully at the opener. As the scenes unfold, Noone’s design morphs
to convey the dramatic moment and reflect the play-at-large, all abetted by
Michael Gottlieb’s flexible lighting. Tracey Christensen’s period costumes
look right as rain and M. Fabian Staab’s sound design is equally spot on.
you have never seen this Shaw play in live performance, and missed the Broadway
iteration in 2001, now is your chance to see a novel interpretation of this
piece that turns traditional religion inside-out and outside-in. Some might
find the staging too stylized, too morally unsettling (Shaw was no banner-waver
for the Salvation Army and other like charities), and too long at two hours
plus. But that said, Staller has really done an outstanding job with this
Shavian work that unveils the social machinery behind the religious platitudes.
the Pearl Theatre, 555 West 42nd Street. Manhattan
tickets, phone (212) 563-9261 or visit online www.pearltheatre.org
time: 2 hours; 15 minutes with intermission.