A century ago, George Bernard Shaw's "problem plays" shattered middle-class complacency like a thunderbolt. No subject was off-limits as the great man ruminated on patriotism, education, sex, politics, religion (especially the theology of salvation) and the class system. The last two topics are especially important in 1905's Major Barbara, which explores and defines the hallmarks of class mobility (access to steady employment with the possibility of upward movement). Shaw's main mouthpiece is protean munitions industrialist Andrew Undershaft, who declares it is better to be "a murderer than a slave." By the end of Act 3, it's hard to disagree. It's no surprise that literary critic Eric Bentley summed up Shaw's canon as "a chaos of clear opinions."
In Major Barbara, Shaw deconstructs the balance between charitable activities and the sources of capital that make conventional alms-giving possible. At the same time, he profoundly questions the social system that invites people to improve their moral stature while denying them any meaningful opportunity to improve their economic station.
The fine shadings of social status and the class-based motivations for various behaviors are abundantly clear in stage sets defining alpha and omega: A posh drawing room contrasts with the snowy Salvation Army courtyard. Lady Britomart's daughter Barbara is comfortable in both places and has achieved rank in the charity. The play hinges on her conversion from disillusionment with to acceptance of the business of her father, Andrew Undershaft.
The players' social roles are as clearly stereotyped as in any play of Molière's (or in any episode of Dallas or Dynasty). We are privileged to be much less aware of these things today, and that presents a problem for a modern production of Major Barbara that the Rep completely fails to address. Director John Going seems to have very little idea of just who the Undershaft menage are. Daughters Barbara (Katherine Leask) and Sarah (Heather Robison) mince, giggle and writhe, whereas son Stephen (Kraig Swartz) sulks and fumes. Not only is their informality out of sync with the period, it reduces Shaw's timing and wit to British-sitcom wisecracks and putdowns. The formidable Lady Britomart (Jill Tanner) is imperious and quite right, so, unfortunately, it's all but impossible to believe these brats are really hers.
Happily, Thomas Carson as Undershaft is also firmly in control of his character. He arrives onstage not a moment too soon -- the long-absent daddy ex machina who must be explained to the children. Carson shows plenty of lust for life and, more important, language. As the one character (besides his wife) who's content with the status quo, he embodies droll acceptance and the moral self-satisfaction of the self-made millionaire. Alas, if only Leask's Barbara were a worthy foil. She simply lacks the presence and conviction to be the redoubtable Barbara. Shaw gives his heroine lines that make being a zealot glamorous, but Leask seems out of her depth -- prim, shrill and disconcertingly girlish.
Actually, few of the actors seemed to have a sense of the period, with some notable exceptions, which makes one wonder how much "hands-on" directing was done here. Jeff Swarthout does a fine job as the violent East End criminal Bill Walker and handles Shaw's fractured East End syntax with considerable aplomb. He is believable, as is the delightful Lex Woutas as the foppishly useless suitor Charles Lomax. Bob Kirsh is a vigorous Adolphus Cusins, Barbara's besotted admirer, though he and Leask don't have much chemistry.
Yet this is a handsome production, with towering sets designed by James Wolk. The Salvation Army yard is more realistic than the underfurnished drawing room but includes frozen water emanating from a tap. And though Shaw wrote plenty of fireworks in this play, we have to wait until Act 3's magnificent cannon, a fly-piercing bruiser, for a really big bang.