By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Jim Martin
Starring Jennifer Christa Palmer, Ron Schneider, Michael Marinaccio, Robin Olson
Mad Cow Theatre, Orlando FL
I thought I was the most cynical man I ever met, but Shaw’s “Major Barbara” makes me reconsider. The wealthy Undershaft family is torn by Lady Britomart’s (Olsen) societal pretentions and her distaste of husband Andrew’s (Schneider) business of making bombs and warships and selling them to all comers. He never met his children, but now its time for Mom to swallow her pride and ask Andrew for their allowance as none of them seem employable. She treats oldest son Stephen (Davis Knoell) as a child and despises Sarah’s (Fridlich) genially confused Charles (Jamie Cline). But the biggest disappointment is Barbara (Palmer) – she’s a Major in the Salvation Army, lives on less than a pound a day, and is engaged to homeless professor of Greek, Adolphus Cusins (Marinaccio). When daddy drops by to sort out who’s who, he and Barbara spar over war and morality until they each agree to visit each others work. This is the philosophical issue Shaw turns on its head – is morality served better by bribing the poor to church with bread and treacle, or by giving them middle class employment and values, and letting them decide for themselves what they want to believe? He argues that building bombs does more for the good of mankind than feeding the poor. If this was Face The Nation, they’d have his skin for a lampshade.
Under director Jim Martin the epic “Major Barbara” stays on focus and allows the conclusions to arrive unexpectedly and convincingly. Schneider looks the jovial father as he re-discovers his family while Olson perfects the Passive Aggressive Mother from Hell. Palmer’s Barbara stands tall and remains in control whether dealing with the physical comedy of Act Two or the philosophical contortions of Act Three. Stephen Lima stole the show as the abusive Bill Walker. His on stage beating of defenseless Jenny Hill (Sara Lockard) seemed gut wrenchingly real, and Walkers inner pride in the face of defeat and starvation won the audiences’ heart. Both Cline and Marinaccio worked hard to out self-efface each other – it was like watching two 8 year olds argue: “Your dad can beat the crap out of mine!” “No he can’t!”
The arguments Shaw makes are subtle, and comparisons with Swift’s “Modest Proposal” leave you wondering just how serious he was. Feeding the homeless and getting them off the streets is a noble cause, but it never seems to prevent more of them from magically appearing. Allowing people to blow off steam by killing their neighbors en mass feels good for a while, but as soon as the disgusted survivors are magically replaced by fresh cannon fodder, the cycle always repeats. Perhaps the Undershaft’s and their friends have the right idea – find a system to exploit and exploit it. Whether you’re scamming the welfare system or the Pentagon, it’s nothing more or less that brute survival. Get up, put on your pants, and go to work. You’ll eventually be dead, but try to delay it as long as possible.
For more information on Mad Cow, please visit http://www.madcowtheatre.com