Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Ample credit must go to George Bernard Shaw's remarkably immutable script, which remains impossibly relevant more than a century after it was first performed, but director Alexander Burns and his cast bring a remarkable energy to this production. Ladd and Hernandez are particularly impressive, each maintaining their own unique essence, even as their relationship and individual ideologies evolve with head-spinning rapidity. Hernandez displays an eager-to-please intellectualism that is entirely endearing.
Marcia Saunders is pitch perfect as politely domineering Lady Britomart. Saunders' one-sided conversations with her son Stephen (Lee Cortopassi) feel amusingly lighthearted even as we begin to see how they are viciously profound. Gabriel W. Elmore walks a similar line between comic and grotesque as her soon-to-be son-in-law Charles Lomax. Double casting Saunders and Elmore as Rummy and Snobby is a stroke of genius by Burns.
Major Barbara itself is equal parts romantic comedy and philosophical treatise on morality–a combination few playwrights other than Shaw could hope to pull off. The story revolves around Barbara Undershaft (Ladd), a dedicated Salvation Army officer whose life and beliefs are challenged when her estranged father Andrew Undershaft (Paul Parente), a wealthy munitions manufacturer, offers financial support to the organization. As Barbara navigates her family's fortune and the moral complexities of the armaments industry, the play delves into profound themes of ethics, social justice, and the contradictions of wealth and poverty. Shaw's wit and sharp social commentary are on full display as the characters engage in thought-provoking debates about the nature of good and the responsibilities of power and wealth.
Burns' understated and intimate set design is excellent, effectively bringing the audience into the action with an clean aesthetic that leaves room for a sense of the surreal. His judicious use of projections meaningfully improves the accessibility of the production. The modern costume designs by Summer Lee Jack thoughtfully accentuate each character's unique personality. They are also gorgeously detailed and precisely tailored pieces in their own right.
However, the production has a few opportunities for improvement and one serious problem. The fight scene is either poorly executed or purposely unrealistic. Either way, it diminishes the impact of an otherwise powerful sequence. And there is an unexplained costume change in the second act that I found a bit distracting.
But the biggest issue is that the show's "prologue" starts in the lobby about 10 minutes before the scheduled curtain. The play continues seamlessly as the audience is moved into the house and finally instructed to take their seats. The problem with this choice is practical rather than artistic. Anyone who arrives at the theater thinking there is just enough time to go to the bathroom, grab a water, and get comfortable may be disappointed to find that they cannot even unwrap a cough drop before showtime. I suspect there is pressure to bring the play in at under four hours, but it would be better to let everyone arrive at the theater, find their places, and get settled. This Major Barbara is far too good to rush.
Major Barbara runs through October 21, 2023, at The Quintessence Theater Group, Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia PA. For tickets and information, please visit QTGREP.org or 215-987-4400 Monday-Friday, noon-5 PM.