He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career. —Andrew Undershaft, Major Barbara, Act III
The wit of Bernard Shaw (as he preferred to be called) is on dazzling display at the Washington Stage Guild. Director Steven Carpenter and his talented cast bring us a beguiling and highly nuanced version of one of Shaw’s finest plays.
We first see Laura Giannarelli as Lady Britomart, at home in Wilton Crescent, London 1906. Despite her commanding personality, and the not-insignificant fact that she is the daughter of an Earl, she is in a bit of a bind financially. Her eldest daughter, Barbara (Emelie Faith Thompson), is engaged to (horrors!) a professor of Greek, Adolphus Cusins (Benjamin Russell). Her younger daughter, Sarah (Marie Claire Lyon), plans to marry one Charles Lomax (Hunter Ringsmith), a young man about town with the usual expectations and unintentionally humorous attitudes. Lomax will not inherit his millions for another ten years, and Cusins is not likely to be a munificent provider, so Lady Britomart is forced to call on her estranged husband, munitions baron Andrew Undershaft (Stephen Patrick Martin), for funds, along with what she fears will be some unpleasant revelations.
Her son Stephen (Justino Brokaw), an upstanding young man, is horrified to find that his fabulously wealthy father Andrew, a foundling himself, will follow the family tradition of disinheriting his real son in favor of another foundling as his successor.
Giannarelli is magnificent as Lady Britomart. When Stephen, shocked by his new circumstances, struggles for an explanation, she explains:
Andrew did it on principle, just as he did every perverse and wicked thing on principle. When my father remonstrated, Andrew actually told him to his face that history tells us of only two successful institutions: one the Undershaft firm, and the other the Roman Empire under the Antonines. That was because the Antonine emperors all adopted their successors. Such rubbish! The Stevenages are as good as the Antonines, I hope; and you are a Stevenage. But that was Andrew all over. There you have the man! Always clever and unanswerable when he was defending nonsense and wickedness: always awkward and sullen when he had to behave sensibly and decently!
Brokaw’s Stephen, although befuddled throughout, manfully attempts to uphold the standards of an English gentleman, despite manifold and continuous insults to his self-esteem, his character, and his very existence.
We are introduced to the idealistic Barbara (Emelie Faith Thompson), who to her mother’s dismay has become a Major in the Salvation Army. Her swain the professor, Adolphus, known as Dolly (Benjamin Russell), whom Undershaft rather condescendingly refers to as “Euripides,” proves to be fully his intellectual equal.
Barbara’s sister, the more conventional Sarah (Marie Claire Lyon), drapes herself around the furniture in a decorative manner and offers her own opinions confidently, with an occasional moue of annoyance. Hunter Ringsmith as her dapper suitor, Charles (“Cholly”) Lomax, wrings every possible drop of humor out of his Bertie Wooster-like character.
Stephen Patrick Martin, as Andrew Undershaft, has the most demanding role and carries it off beautifully. He instinctively understands that to overplay Undershaft would cheapen the character. Instead, he provides the portrait of a ruthless man of business, who, with “the true faith of the Armorer,” declares, “I am a Millionaire. That is my religion.”
In the second act, we are at Major Barbara’s West Ham Salvation Army Shelter. We meet Rummy Mitchens (Laura Giannarelli), Snobby Price (Hunter Ringsmith), and Peter Shirley (Frank Britton). Rummy, a respectable married woman, feigns vice in order to receive help; Snobby pretends to be a drunk who beats his mother. Britton as Peter Shirley, an elderly workman who has been let go because of his age, is the only one who seems sincere.
Britton gives a fine performance here, as the Undershafts’ butler Morrison, and later as a munitions employee in Undershaft’s factory. There is double and even triple casting, all of it extremely successful.
Giannarelli excels as Rummy and Salvation Army leader Mrs. Baines, as well as Lady Britomart. Ringsmith’s flair for comedy makes his turns as Cholly and Snobby a pleasure to watch. And Justino Brokaw is a wonder as Stephen Undershaft and the violent bully Bill Walker; you could hardly imagine two more opposite characters, but he is equal to both.
Marie Claire Lyon, who is introduced to us as Sarah, also plays the very different Jenny Hill, an Army worker who, along with Rummy, is knocked around by Walker.
Emelie Faith Thompson is a delightful Barbara. Her charm makes her religious advocacy seem heartfelt instead of bullying. As the Greek professor, Dolly, Benjamin Russell is convincingly clever and powerfully indignant when he needs to be.
The twists and turns of Act III lead to some surprising conclusions. Whether they are right are wrong is left to the audience to decide.
Shaw remains a controversial figure. His admiration for dictators such as Mussolini is disturbing, as are some of his other beliefs. The terrible consequences of a surfeit of weapons, as we endure in America again and again, most recently this weekend, are not really addressed in the play. However, there is no disputing his greatness as a playwright, and that is amply demonstrated here.
The stylish scenic design is by Megan Holden. Costumes by Maria Bissek are attractive and colorful. Kudos are also due to Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows, Sound Designer Marcus Darnley, and Fight Choreographer Paul Hope.
Congratulations also to Artistic Director Bill Largess for another outstanding production. Shaw’s love of paradox conquers all. Or, as he once said, “A man never tells you anything until you contradict him.”
Running Time: Three hours, with two 10-minute intermissions.
Major Barbara plays through December 11, 2022, presented by Washington Stage Guild performing in The Undercroft Theatre at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($50–$60, with half off for students and $10 off for seniors) can be purchased online.
COVID Safety: All patrons must wear masks at all times while in the theater. Washington Stage Guild’s complete Health and Safety Policy is here.