‘Major Barbara’ at Pallas Theatre Collective

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It’s not always easy to figure out what view of life George Bernard Shaw is trying to express in Major Barbara. Though he was a freethinker, he gives us a witty, tolerant, idealistic heroine, Barbara, who’s passionate about her work with the Salvation Army; though he was a committed socialist, he nevertheless puts some of the play’s strongest arguments in the mouth of Barbara’s capitalist, weapons-manufacturing father, Andrew Undershaft. It’s safe to say that neither of their views represent Shaw’s own—in fact, he seems to be arguing that Christian charity and “the factory of death” are two sides of the same coin: yet he’s willing to let them have their say, sometimes at great length. And though his play satirizes many things, it rarely satirizes either of them. They are completely honest about who they are and what they do, and by that honesty they earn our respect, if not always our approbation.

Axle Burtness and Kathleen Mason in Major Barbara. Photo: Teresa Castracane Photography LLC.
Axle Burtness and Kathleen Mason in ‘Major Barbara.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography LLC.

I would like to see Pallas Theatre Collective’s new production of Major Barbara reflect a little more of that complexity and broadmindedness. Although the actors portray Shaw’s characters sympathetically and speak his dialogue with conviction, the projections designed by Jason Aufdem-Brinke work against them somewhat. On screens at the back and side of the stage, generally used as backdrops for whatever scene is going on, giant pictures of weapons and flags flash when those things are mentioned by the characters. (This is after both screens displayed articles excoriating modern politicians and weapons manufacturers, while the audience waited for the play to begin.) The effect is a little on-the-nose for a play of such ambiguity.

There are several fine performances: Julia Morrissey’s bluff, good-natured Barbara, David Dubov’s smooth and patient Andrew Undershaft, and Ian Blackwell Rogers’s lively Adolphus Cusins (Barbara’s fiancé) carry the show capably among them. Other standouts include Taunya Ferguson in a dual role as Rummy Mitchens and Mrs. Baines, requiring a very wide dramatic range, and Steve Beall as Peter Shirley, in the scenes at the Salvation Army shelter where Barbara works.

David S Dubov-Flinn and Ian Blackwell Rogers in 'Major Barbara.' Photo: Teresa Castracane Photography LLC.
David S Dubov-Flinn and Ian Blackwell Rogers in ‘Major Barbara.’ Photo byTeresa Castracane Photography LLC.

Dane C. Petersen, who played another shelter denizen, also took on the role of Barbara’s brother, Stephen, on Friday night, when actor Will Hawkins fell ill. Though on book, Petersen rose admirably to the challenge, and the rest of the cast ably supported him. (Steve Beall took on a second role, that of the Undershaft family butler, to allow Petersen to play Stephen.)

The set designed by Hallmark (also the director) and Clem Trott, consisting of a few pieces of furniture and some strategically placed crates, is spare but functions well in the small space. Brian J. Shaw’s well-designed costumes are particularly worthy of note, especially in the last scene, when he cheekily dresses Undershaft nearly all in shades of white and off-white as he’s tempting Adolphus to join his munitions factory. This choice strikes the kind of mischievous, subversive note that the production could have used more of, if its goal is to live up to Shaw’s thought-provoking play.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Major Barbara plays through May 31, 2015 at Pallas Theatre Collective performing at the Anacostia Arts Center — 1231 Good Hope Road, SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.