The salvation of Shaw

Pear Theatre presents witty, weighty 'Major Barbara'

In George Bernard Shaw's 1905 play "Major Barbara," the characters grapple with questions that still plague us today, in this age of campaign financing and lobbyists. Is accepting money from sources with questionable motives or values worth doing if the money serves the greater good? Pear Theatre has revived Shaw's thought-provoking comedy, just in time for Election Day.

The indomitable Barbara Undershaft, filled with soul-saving zeal, has risen to the rank of major in the Salvation Army, where she tirelessly recruits converts from London's poorest quarters, offering them food and shelter in the name of the Lord. But Barbara actually hails from an upper-class family. The granddaughter of an earl, her estranged father is Andrew Undershaft, an incredibly wealthy arms manufacturer of dubious morals and religious beliefs. Barbara, her siblings and her mother, the overbearing Lady Britomart, have all distanced themselves from Andrew, disapproving of the way in which he earns his fortune through selling weapons to anyone willing to pay for them. But now they're all in need of his financial support, as Barbara's sister is engaged to happy-go-lucky dilettante Charles Lomax, brother Stephen has no apparent profession or direction, and Barbara's fiance, the idealistic professor of Greek, Adolphus Cusins, is unlikely to be able to support her. The jovial Undershaft is delighted to reunite with his family but shrugs off their criticisms of his business (it's the old, "guns don't kill people; people kill people" argument). A former penniless foundling, Undershaft, with his motto of "unashamed," is a firm believer in the power of capitalism. He considers his loved ones misguided, declaring, "This love of the common people may please an earl's granddaughter and a university professor but I have been a common man and a poor man and it has no romance for me." He makes a deal with Barbara, who's clearly his favorite child and the one in which he most sees his own enterprising spirit. He'll visit her Salvation Army shelter if she'll agree to visit his armory.

In Act 2, we see Barbara, and the shelter, in action, in all their tambourine-rattling, flag-waving, "hallelujah"-shouting glory. The working-class East Enders seeking help there are grateful to Barbara and her earnest co-workers but much less genuinely invested in the religious message of the organization, mocking it amongst themselves and inventing depraved backgrounds to seem more "redeemed." It's clear they're in it for the free bread and tea they so desperately need, not the promised eternal salvation and moral guidance.

Barbara's shelter is in danger of closing due to lack of funds. To her horror, her father sees this as a perfect opportunity to buy his daughter's affection by donating a large sum, alongside a rich purveyor of alcoholic beverages who's offered to pitch in (drinking is, of course, heavily frowned upon by the Army). To Barbara's supervisor, taking the money, though it comes from unsavory sources, is perfectly reasonable. The money exists regardless, so why not put it to good and honorable use? But to Barbara, taking profits made off of weapons and booze is nothing more than blood money: completely unacceptable. Meanwhile, Undershaft's workers are well-treated, well-paid and seemingly happy. Is he, in fact, doing more for the "common" man by giving him a good job than Barbara is with her charity and religion?

The play is full of smart and interesting musings on the value of compromise, ethics and principles, the British class system, and power. Shaw is a master of this type of social satire and intelligent discussion, contained within a quite-witty family comedy. The Pear's version, directed by Elizabeth Kruse Craig, stands up very well, with the always-wonderful Todd Wright as Undershaft, Monica Cappuccini in perfect form as his formidable spouse, and Briana Mitchell as a the spirited and spiritual Barbara. Particularly impressive, too, is Michael Weiland in the dual role of the frivolous Lomax and the menacing cockney Bill Walker. Many of the actors in this production take on multiple roles, switching between the upper- and lower-class ranks, which shows, as the program states, that "social rank is a matter of externals, rather than innate qualities." Point taken, but it can be a bit confusing in action. And unfortunately, while Shaw's script is wonderfully wordy, a few actors (especially Michael Saenz as Stephen Undershaft), have such appalling attempts at British accents as to render some lines unintelligible (one shudders to think what that other Shaw creation, Henry Higgins, might make of it).

The set (designed by Kruse Craig and Norm Beamer, constructed by Beamer and James Kopp) drew applause at some clever trap-door transformations at the third act, and a backdrop projection is a nice touch, but I'd liked to have seen more done with it, to perhaps take up the full space.

Audiences may not leave the theater with a clear sense of whether Undershaft is a devil or merely a good businessman (or if the mass bloodshed of the Great War in a decade's time would have changed his opinion on his trade), nor whether it's true that "there is only one true morality for every man; but every man has not the same true morality." They will, however, leave thoroughly amused as well as intellectually nourished.

What: "Major Barbara"

Where: Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View

When: Through Nov. 20, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m.

Cost: $28-32

Info: Go to Pear Theatre

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