We’ve seen her type before: the Iron Matron. Imperious, but so impeccably mannered that you almost wouldn’t notice. So cunning that she’d never admit to her own cleverness. Intent on everyone doing things her way because, by god, that’s the way good people do things!
Alternately feigning helplessness, pulling strings and slinging barbs, Lady Britomart steals the opening scene of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, and with the marvelous Dana Green playing the role in the production newly opened at Portland Center Stage, that amounts to grand theft.
Shaw gives the character such sly wit that you excuse all the exposition she’s hauling out. Under the guise of asking her grown son, Stephen, to take charge of family matters, she fills him in on family history, meanwhile laying out for us the play’s narrative premise as if she was setting the dinner table (though of course she’d have the help do that).
There isn’t enough money to go around, you see; not with Stephen’s sisters, Barbara and Sarah, set to marry men who won’t soon (or in one case, perhaps ever) come into a good income. The only solution is to ask Lady Britomart’s estranged and long absent husband, Andrew Undershaft, for more support. They know he has it, as a formidably wealthy arms manufacturer. But the source of the wealth also is the core of the marital conflict: Undershaft tradition demands that the family business be passed on to a foundling, but Lady Britomart can’t abide what amounts to the disinheritance of Stephen.
So, with Lady Britomart parading a rich comic cloth reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, we’re off on what appears to be one of those superficially complicated comedies of upper-crust manners and class consciousness. And yet…
Already we have a couple of clues that something more serious is going on here. For one, there’s been an odd little intro tacked on, a quick-hit contextualization pointing out some of the socio-political milestones in the run-up to the play’s 1905 setting. For another, there’s Green’s admirable restraint — she’s not nearly as arch as she might be — making things feel more grounded than a frivolous comedy would be. And, of course, this is Shaw, one of the most politically intent of great English playwrights.
So what follows instead are scenes dramatizing the plight of the poor and Barbara’s earnest attempts to feed them bread and Christ as a major in the Salvation Army, and then a lengthy argument about morality and economics, dramatized through Andrew Undershaft’s demonstration of his job-creating power and his attempts to convert Barbara and her beaux Adolphus, a starry-eyed professor of Greek, to his realpolitik.
Charles Leggett plays Undershaft as, at first, an amiable, grandfatherly rascal, then increasingly as an implacable, dominating force. Lady Britomart’s propriety, Major Barbara’s spiritual zeal, Adolphus’s poetic love of the common folk — none of these are a match for Undershaft’s unyielding brass-tacks materialism. Its title notwithstanding, the play seems more about him (or rather what he symbolizes) than about the ultimately fungible ideas set against him, Major Barbara’s or anyone’s.
The stiff interstitial commentaries before each scene give the impression that director Chris Coleman didn’t quite trust the durability or clarity of Shaw’s ideas at a century’s remove, but they don’t throw off the production’s rhythm or tone too badly. And there’s fine work in many areas here: Brian Weaver wrapping Adolphus’s free-floating idealism in fey charm; Gavin Hoffman seeming to move only his lips and his knees as a starched-to-the-gills butler; Chris Murray grinning vacantly as Cholly, a buffoonish symbol of the privileged and conventional; Joshua Weinstein’s nose in the air as the priggish Stephen, who, having no skills or interests, decides to be a politician; the luxe costume designs of Lex Liang; etc.
As for Lady Britomart, however artfully she may preside over things at the outset, by the end she’s consigned to the sidelines of Undershaft’s “blood and fire” social Darwinism. Perhaps that’s part of Shaw’s point: Doing the right thing, even for good people, is harder than you’d think.
Major Barbara continues through May 13 at Portland Center Stage at The Armory. Ticket and schedule information here.