Chicago Theatre Review
Damn the Torpedoes
Major Barbara – ShawChicago
During one of his most fertile periods of writing, George Bernard Shaw created this theatrical philosophical argument, disguised as a romantic comedy, topped with a generous helping of political and moral undertones. Shaw’s three-act play, which first charmed British audiences in 1905, didn’t hit America until ten years later. Since that first production, there have been four other successful New York revivals and, in 1941, the play was transferred to film, starring Rex Harrison and Wendy Hiller.
Shaw’s play tells the story of the Undershaft family. Barbara is an officer in the Salvation Army, whose life has been dedicated to helping London’s poor. She lives with her mother, Lady Britomart Undershaft, her brother Stephen and sister Sarah. Frequent callers at the house include Barbara’s fiancee, a Greek scholar named Adolphus Cusins (nicknamed “Dolly”), and Sarah’s intended, Charles Lomax (nicknamed “Cholly”), a pompous, but agreeable young man. Disassociated from their father for years, wealthy and successful Andrew Undershaft, the owner of an enormous international munitions factory, suddenly pays a call to the house. Lady Britomart confides to Stephen that she’s invited his father for a visit because their current financial position demands that they seek his financial help. Soon after he arrives, the family denounces Undershaft for the manner in which he’s made his fortune: producing guns, canons, torpedoes and other forms of weaponry for countries at war. Undershaft makes a bargain with Barbara that if he’s allowed to visit her Salvation Army shelter to see the work she does, the family may tour of his munitions facility and form their own opinion of his endeavors. Upon the completion of both field trips, understanding evolves, lessons are learned and, of course, harmony and financial security are once again restored to the Undershaft household.
As in most Shavian plays, words, words and more words continue to flow. High-minded ideals, politics, religion, culture and all things erudite fill the stage, often disguised as romance. This play, which is actually a fascinating debate on moral purity, does go on for quite a while. The direction behind this concert reading, however, and the fine performances to be savored here, make for an enjoyable afternoon or evening of theatre.
Artistic Director Robert Scogin has directed this, one of Shaw’s masterworks, as a feast for the ear. The music created by the playwright’s words and phraseology floats across the footlights with richness and sublimity, produced by a chamber orchestra of talented Chicago actors. Stepping back onto the Ruth Page stage is the exquisite Mary Michell, grand and glorious as Lady Britomart. Her vocal acrobatics and handling of the playwright’s phrasing and language would make Shaw proud. In the title role, Barbara Zahora is a refined, but spirited and well-spoken young lady. She brings to this production a passion for the principles for which Major Barbara stands, but it’s in her character’s surprising about-face scene that the actress truly shines. Jack Hickey plays Andrew Undershaft with all the bold, self-assuredness one would expect from such a successful man, and he delivers Shaw’s philosophies as sound, logical arguments.
Doug MacKechnie offers a softer, more realistic and humane Adolphus Cusins, qualities often lacking in other productions of this play. He becomes the audience’s surrogate as an outsider gradually earning his rightful position among the family. Other strong performances come from the always entertaining Gary Alexander, as a charmingly delightful, continually befuddled Charles Lomax; accomplished actor Christian Gray, practically unrecognizable as a down-on-his-luck Cockney philosopher, Bill Walker; and Matthew Gall as a humorously enthusiastic and very opinionated younger sibling, Stephen Undershaft.
As in most of Shaw’s plays, thoughts and words far exceed the importance of deeds, making the playwright’s works ideal for ShawChicago’s readers theatre form of productions. Once again, Robert Scogin demonstrates his knowledge, talent and finesse as the area’s premier scholar and producer of both Bernard Shaw’s works and concert reading style productions. For audiences seeking an entertaining, thoughtful play, performed by an accomplished cast and stripped of all distractions, falderal and gimmicks, this production is “Damn the torpedoes—full speed ahead!”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 25-May 18 by ShawChicago at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling ShawChicago at 312-587-7390 or by going to www.shawchicago.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.