I am a millionaire. That is my religion.
NY Theater Review JK Clarke
The question of nobility’s proper or improper influence on organized religion has long been debated, but seldom is it so candidly explained by Mr. Undershaft, the wealthy paterfamilias whose brood is debating the value of his money vis à vis its questionable origins. And it is his daughter, for whom this play is named, who has the most troubling dilemma when it comes to her desire to repudiate her father’s industry in spite of the lifestyle comforts it affords her; especially when it comes to allowing her to provide much needed aid for her church and community, The Salvation Army.
Major Barbara, now being presented by the Pearl Theater Company and Gingold Theatrical Group through December 14, is George Bernard Shaw’s crafty story of an aristocratic family, helmed by an absentee father whose wealth is obtained in the armaments industry. Initially, it seems his daughter, Barbara, a zealous Major in the Salvation Army is the family member most ardently opposed to her father’s business, but he wrangles with her in the kindest possible fashion and ultimately makes her understand that not all moral lines are so cleanly drawn. Major Barbara, a story that could easily be taking place today in the household of any one-percenter with idealistic offspring (which makes it an even more compelling story), is a lusciously layered study of the frayed edges of moral absolutes.
Set in turn-of-the-century England, the production features lush Victorian costumes (Tracey Christensen)—redolent of an episode of the BBC serial, Downton Abbey, with even Lady Britomart (a delightful Carol Shultz) as a stand-in for Maggie Smith, without quite as many incisive quips—and crisp and elegantly austere Salvation Army uniforms; plus a fine, gilded-era set (James Noone) in black and gold, suggesting heights of finery not experienced by common folk.
The play, however—a thick and intellectually profound piece that could potentially lose an audience—really soars in the hands of director David Staller and a terrific cast. As Major Barbara, Hannah Cabell exudes the joy of a saved soul, but the command and dominance of an army officer only a nobleman’s spawn could so confidently maintain. And squaring off as her father, Andrew Undershaft, Dan Daily is brilliantly aristocratic and simultaneously business savvy and intellectual. He’s able to comfortably and believably spar with Barbara’s suitor, Greek Professor Adolphus Cusins (a pleasingly sly and eager Richard Gallagher) siziing him up and admiring him all the while: “She will find out that that drum of yours is hollow,” he tells him with a wink.
This production does, smoothly, exactly what the esteemed playwright wanted it to do: it makes us deeply reflect, on the company of an eccentric and interesting group of characters, on the nature of right and wrong and the inevitabilities of the human condition. If we, as a species, Shaw posits, are bound to war endlessly with one another, is it not logical then to harness that beast (war) and figure out a way to make some good of it (jobs, profits and charity)? Taking a close look at the military industrial complex that dominates our economy today, we cannot but see that Shaw was far more prescient, and correct, than even he could have imagined.
Major Barbara. Through December 14 at The Pearl Theater (555 West 42nd Street @11th Avenue). www.pearltheatre.org