A father and daughter fight a battle to the death over ideas in "Major Barbara."
George Bernard Shaw's 1905 morality play ignites the debate between profit and philanthropy, war and peace. Exuberantly directed by Dennis Garnhum, this bracing revival of the satire runs through Feb. 2 at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater in a co-production with Canada's Theatre Calgary. Indeed, it's hard to understand why this explosive comedy of manners is so seldom staged, given its topical bite into the issues of war and money.
Framed by Daniel Ostling's breathtaking postmodern set, a vast jigsaw puzzle of hanging window frames that looks like it could topple into anarchy at any moment, Shaw's skewering of human civilization feels as damning as ever.
Andrew Undershaft (a droll Dean Paul Gibson) is a fat cat arms manufacturer, a pillar of the British military industrial complex, who has made his fortune from society's fondness for violence. Estranged from his wife, Lady Britomart (a wonderfully dry Kandis Chappell) for years, he strolls back into the family manse to find that his son (Stafford Perry) is a bit of a fop and one of his daughters (Elyse Price) is a social butterfly.
None of that surprises him, but he is bemused to learn that his daughter Barbara (Gretchen Hall) has some of his flash and fire. She has walked away from the conventional pursuits of her class to become a major in the Salvation Army. She refuses a life of privilege to serve the poor because she believes she can save them.
Sensing in her the same passion for enterprise that fuels him, Undershaft attempts to win her mind even as she yearns to save his soul. In his opening gambit, he agrees to spend one day in her world, the realm of charity, if she will spend a day in his cannon works. He is confident she will learn that capitalism trumps ethics over time.
Shaw fleshes out these characters with great relish, giving both sides of all arguments their due. The playwright was a socialist but was also an equal opportunity satirist. Here he vigorously indicts the middle class for its pretensions, the poor for their complicity in society's illusions and, of course, the rich for their elegant brand of cruelty.
When the pampered and priggish Stephen, who longs to become a politician, insists that the government controls the land, his father explains that men of business have long called the tune of the nation. The people may cast the votes, but it's the titans who steer the ship.
"You will make war when it suits us and keep peace when it doesn't," he says. "You will find out that trade requires certain measures when we have decided on those measures. When I want anything to keep my dividends up, you will discover that my want is a national need."
Gibson etches Undershaft in all his charismatic glory. Half Machiavelli, half metaphysical poet, Undershaft can charm the ideology out from under anyone, even Barbara's ostensibly Spartan fiance, Adolphus (a wry Nicholas Pelczar), a professor of Greek. He even gives Barbara pause when he points out that if you save starving people with bread in one hand and the Bible in the other, you will never know if they are responding to your religion or merely to their own hunger.
Make no mistake, Shaw's genius was nothing if not didactic, and the marathon of speeches in the last act might be exhausting, were it not for the lusty performances Garnhum coaxes out of the cast. This almost three-hour "Major Barbara" is play of ideas that emerges victorious.
Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza
By George Bernard Shaw, presented by American Conservatory Theater
Through: Feb. 2
415 Geary St., San Francisco
Running time: 2 hours,
45 minutes; one intermission