Spotlight: Major Barbara


When the curtain came up for the final act of Major Barbara on opening night last Friday, the audience let out a gasp of delight, and a fair portion of its members burst into applause. Neil Patel's two previous sets, an upscale drawing room and the exterior of a Salvation Army mission, had been serviceable and up to Guthrie standards. But the final scenes took place on a brash absurdity: There was a big metal elevator; a gleaming phallic rocket a couple of stories tall; and, filling the formidable stage to the ceiling, a series of Astroturf ramps on which jumpsuit-clad workers pushed giant cannonballs like malign Oompa Loompas. The kicker in George Bernard Shaw's scenario is that this ain't no chocolate factory. It's a munitions plant, where gleeful war profiteer Andrew Undershaft (Paul O'Brien) has brought his righteous daughter Barbara (Sarah Agnew) to show her the light of amorality and the victory of the will. The action hinges on a fairly preposterous setup, in which Andrew plans to disown his eldest son, Stephen (Joe Paulik), and bequeath his business empire, per family tradition, on a male foundling. O'Brien is all smiles and good humor as the industrialist who returns to his family after an improbably long absence. (As his wife, Sandra Shipley lends aggrieved rectitude to a woman in search of an even bigger meal ticket than the one she currently enjoys.) Barbara's squeeze Adolphus (Jesse Pennington) urges Barbara to resist her father's temptations, but pretty soon just about everyone falls under the industrialist's Satanic sway. Pennington is given to angular bobbing and weaving—his character swaggers and self-deprecates at the same time—but Adolphus's conversion fails to convince. Agnew, who seems a bit hemmed in, stands with ramrod straightness and gleams with a convert's glee by the end. But a bit more of her unhinged streak would have been welcome. By the end, everyone sounds like Shaw arguing morality with himself. And while it's heady and full of conviction, this particular mind-bomb doesn't fully detonate.