- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 10, 2001

George Bernard Shaw isn't easy on audiences. His plays can be stuffed so full of ideas and observations, you risk missing a trenchant remark or clever aphorism if your mind wanders even for a moment.

But those up to the challenge will be rewarded with the Washington Stage Guild's "Major Barbara" at the Source Theatre, a lively production of a real classic.

Barbara Undershaft (Tricia McCauley), a major in the Salvation Army, has devoted herself to saving souls. She's eternally optimistic and unfazed by the world's ills. She'll feed those down on their luck a hot meal, and try to convert them when they're finished.

Although she's sincere about her mission, it's a pretty good racket for the hungry. They have only to dream up a few sins to confess and praise the army for their salvation in exchange.

The major also happens to be the daughter of cannon manufacturer Andrew Undershaft (Morgan Duncan), a millionaire who glories in the horrors of war. He doesn't try to rationalize how he made his money: He's rich because he has found more efficient ways to kill more human beings.

Andrew Undershaft is invited back to his family after a long absence by his wife, Lady Britomart (Lynn Steinmetz), who wants him to give his children a fixed annual amount for living expenses. She is demanding and domineering, but expects her son Stephen (Steven Carpenter) to take over household matters and wants him to join his father in business.

Although Stephen and Andrew Undershaft have a mutual disregard for each other, Andrew is fascinated by his daughter. He sets about winning her over, even as she declares she'll help him see the light.

Barbara is engaged to Adolphus Cusins (Brian McMonagle), a professor of Greek who joins the Salvation Army out of passion for the major and who gets a chance to succeed Andrew at the cannon factory.

The play pits religion against business, salvation against the military-industrial complex — but it's never that cut and dried. Shaw threads the elements together.

Cusins wrestles with his own anti-war philosophies when he has the opportunity to make killing machines, and a tidy profit. Barbara despairs over the power of money, but realizes in the end it can be used to do good.

The performances are strong and all the more impressive because many of the actors play two characters.

Michael Glenn is amusing as Charles "Cholly" Lomax, the buffoonish fiance of Barbara's sister, Sarah (Kathleen Coons), and truly funny as Bill Walker, a quick-tempered laborer trying to win his girl back from the Salvation Army. Bill is skeptical of the Salvation Army's tactics, but can't help falling victim to them.

As Andrew Undershaft, Mr. Duncan is a tour de force. He's a cranky father, a calculating businessman and a rank opportunist. He's also an honor-bound man disinclined to give in to the hypocrisies of his social class. His speech on the crime of poverty and the immorality of hunger shows he is a man of principle.

Although the play deals with some weighty issues, it also contains plenty of humor — Shaw's humor, which punctures pretensions and exposes hypocrisies and skewers with its sarcasm.

A play with so much talk could easily fall into the trap of tediousness, but director John MacDonald keeps things moving.

"Major Barbara" is a long play that tackles a lot in its 31/2 hours and leaves the audience with a lot to think about after it has ended. But it's worth the effort.{*}{*}{*}WHAT: "Major Barbara"WHERE: Washington Stage Guild at the Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NWWHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and SundaysTICKETS: $22 through $25PHONE: 240/582-0050

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