Photo by Ken HowardBy this time, Martin Benson and the theater he co-founded some 40 years ago, South Coast Repertory, should know how to do George Bernard Shaw. This marks the 12th Shaw production in SCR's history, and it's the third time Benson has tackled his 1905 comedy about weapons, salvation and gauging one's value to society.
It is doubtful that a previous cast or a set have ever equaled the depth, professionalism and cost of this production. The cast is comprised of theatrical ringers from top to bottom, ranging from SCR stalwarts Kandis Chappell and Nike Doukas to less familiar faces like Dakin Matthews and JD Cullum. And Ralph Funicello's sets are jaw-dropping. There's a burgundy-hued, immaculately appointed, upper-class drawing room; a grimy greystone back of a Salvation Army mission; and an antiseptically cleansed munitions factory located in a quiet country town. Each locale is ravishing—together, they probably cost more than the annual budgets of every storefront theater in this county.
The big sets give Shaw's play of big ideas and big conflicts and big questions a fitting environment. Major Barbarais about many things including, but not limited to, the issue of one morality vs. moral relavatism, the importance of finding one's place in society, the relative value of trying to save the souls of the poor with Jesus or with jobs. But more than anything, Major Barbaraseems to be the iconoclastic Shaw's attempt to convince his audience—and perhaps himself—that it is far more worthwhile to improve society by reforming it from within rather than blindly attacking it from without.
Shaw may have been a Socialist, but in the context of revolution, he was a timid one. His politics were infused by a strong streak of utilitarianism; he believed that all human endeavors should be judged on one standard: their value to society. And the most valuable thing to society, in Shaw's view, was money because it fights poverty, the most worthless thing in society.
In Major Barbara, the titular Barbara (an overwrought Doukas, who needs to ditch the sliced onion she's apparently hiding in her coat pocket) leads a Salvation Army mission. Her duty on Earth is to save the poor by giving them bread and treacle and then selling them Jesus. Barbara is the daughter of Andrew Undershaft (Matthews, who, along with JD Cullum as Barbara's sweetheart, contribute two of the most wickedly delightful performances you'll see anywhere), a millionaire arms maker who makes no apologies that he has earned his wealth trading in death and destruction. Undershaft is a thoroughly unredeemable character—which is precisely why, in Shaw's hands, he makes the most sense in this play. He revels in his status as war profiteer, proudly proclaiming that he would gladly sell arms to a criminal since all they would be used for is a petty crime that would surely pale in comparison to that greatest of crimes: being poor.
Undershaft wants to convince his daughter that saving the needy by keeping them poor but rich in Jesus is a travesty; it's far better to save them by giving them jobs. When Undershaft offers to donate 4,000 English pounds to keep her Salvation Army mission afloat, Barbara has to choose between adherence to her standards by refusing his blood money, which would close down her shelter, or accept her father's charity and continue her holy work by using money made through the art of killing people.
Clocking in at just under three hours, this is a verrrrry long play—and one that sometimes feels that long, particularly at the end of each act. Shaw rarely met a word he didn't like or an argument he wouldn't dispute or defend for pages. Benson does little artificially to speed this play along (it's amazing how little the characters move, particularly in the first act). Instead, he relies on the ability of his cast to own its lines and the ability of Shaw's incredibly absorbing discussions to rise above the lack of plot. For the most part, Bensen's technique (or lack of one) works fine. This is a sterling example of staging a play the way it's written. When it's as cleverly written as Shaw and as well-acted as this, it's hard to dislike.
Oh, by the way, SCR also has a great new $19 million theater complex, officially unveiled with this production of Major Barbara. But more on that next week.
MAJOR BARBARA AT SOUTH COAST REPERTORY'S SEGERSTROM STAGE, 655 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-5555. TUES.-FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2:30 & 8 P.M.; SUN., 2:30 & 7:30 P.M. THROUGH NOV. 17. $19-$54.