We can watch any of Shakespeare’s plays and be reminded that human beings have not changed much in the last several hundred years. We can watch the Rogue Theatre production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara” and begin to get some sense of the wreckage that has been wrought by the culture wars currently under way for nearly 50 years.
The brilliance of Shaw’s polemical play is that both liberals and conservatives can watch and nod with approval. They won’t be nodding at the same time, but all sides can go home believing “That guy Shaw had some good ideas.”
“Major Barbara,” which premiered in 1905, is filled with serious commentary about capitalist economics, the entrenched religious leaders and their political agendas, the plight of workers, conflict between the sexes, pointlessness worrying about one’s soul and the conviction that what really matters in life is who dies with the most toys.
It would be fascinating to hear Shaw’s comments about today’s muddled society of blurred identities, hedging personalities and gridlocked ideology. Having the chance to read his essay on the bogus value of political correctness alone would be worth calling him back from the dead.
Rogue Theatre has solidly defined itself as Tucson’s theater for the thinking person. The company is to be commended for wanting to produce “Major Barbara,” a piece of theater specifically for those inclined to be concerned about the future of the civilized world. This is no comic entertainment for a light night on the town.
While there is humor in Shaw's snide sniping at the self-righteous, for example, and the insistence that educated men need to be fluent in Greek, most of the jokes come from situations rather than one-liners in the George Carlin tradition.
David Morden as director has prepared a clear-headed interpretation that values the words. This play, after all, is not about a fascinating protagonist or a cleverly twisted plot. It’s about the values and observations of George Bernard Shaw.
On opening night there were a very un-Rogue-like number of fluffed lines. These will no doubt be cleared up over the weekend.
Leading the list of exceptional performances was Matt Bowdren as the idealistic Adolphus Cusins, fiancé of Barbara (Marissa Garcia) who becomes a major in the fledgling Salvation Army.
Garcia is also fine as Barbara, who feels guilty about being born into such a wealthy family. Insisting on dedicating her life to helping the poor with Christian values, she is discouraged to discover the top Salvation Army officers are happy to take the generous cash donations of whiskey distillers and military arms manufacturers.
This kind of hypocrisy is elevated to an art form of philosophical rationalizing in the cynical life of Barbara’s father, Andrew Underschaft (Joseph McGrath), whose family has grown quite rich over the generations with its weapons factory -- dreaming up ingenious designs for the most efficiently destructive weaponry in modern British military history.
McGrath plays the role with welcomed understatement, practically making Andrew a sympathetic figure who knows if he wants to stay wealthy he must continue thinking of better ways to kill more people.
Andrew calls the work “fascinating,” and does good by providing cheery and comfortable homes and working conditions for his employees. Presumably to make these workers’ own bargain with the Devil more palatable.
In smaller roles, David Greenwood as a proud but poor fellow and Matt Walley as an angry and also poor fellow fling hurtful words at each other in a most convincing manner.
“Major Barbara” continues through Sunday, Sept. 25, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, always at the Rogue Theatre, 300 E. University Blvd. Before each performance is 15 minutes of music by the Del Pueblo Brass Quintet. Tickets are $30 general admission, with several types of discounts available. For details and reservations, 520-551-2053, or visit www.theRogueTheatre.org