If you love period theatre that explores differing ways society at the time looked at subjects like religion, social conscience and obligation for starters, Red Deer College’s Major Barbara might be worth a look.
The show runs through to Feb. 17th with curtain at 7:30 p.m. on the Arts Centre’s mainstage.
Weekend matinees run Feb. 10th and 17th at 1 p.m. as well.
Penned by George Bernard Shaw, the story – masterfully directed by Thomas Usher – follows Barbara – a major in the Salvation Army in the east end of London – who works to save lives and souls by helping the poor and confronting social injustice.
Barbara (played to perfection by Alex Creedon) is level-headed, dedicated, utterly calm in the face of adversity – the ideal major in the Army which had really only just started up not much earlier in that poverty-stricken part of the sprawling metropolis.
Meanwhile, Andrew Undershaft (James Walker), her fabulously wealthy father and arms industrialist, is looking to acquire an heir.
Barbara and her father look at things in completely different ways, but they learn to understand each other as the play unfolds. It ends in a rather surprising way – there is a resolution of sorts – but perhaps not what one might have expected.
Each visits the other’s place of work and mission. And each learns more about how the other one ticks.
It’s a lengthy show and incredibly wordy – usually not the greatest attributes for a crowd-pleasing play.
But in this context, it mostly works. I felt like I was learning quite a bit as the dialogue unfolded thanks to Shaw’s insights about society at the time, and the cast kept the pace moving along nicely.
There were a couple of scenes that, in my opinion, could have been trimmed just to make things tighter and briefer, but again it wasn’t boring.
There are things that we can relate to today – caring for the poor in society for one.
What’s the best, most practical, most effective way of doing that? Where do one’s spiritual beliefs fit into that – how can they fuel what needs to be done, and precisely where in a particular place it needs to be done?
Barbara learns that her efforts can be applied in other contexts – and I’ll leave the intricacies of the plot at that. It’s food for thought – maybe unsettling to some – but challenging nonetheless.
As for the look of the play (set and costumes), Carrie Hamilton has done a terrific job (again) of putting together a versatile set and array of costumes that fit perfectly with what’s going on at any given moment.
And as mentioned, the performances are strong – from the aformentioned Creedon and Walker to Aimbree Lauren as the steely, determined Lady Britomart Undershaft and Barbara’s brother Stephen, played with aristocratic pomp and severity by Brett Nixon.
Jennifer Engler and Jared Baker bring lots of spirit and energy to their roles of Rummy and Snobby respectively – a couple of down-on-their-luck folks who find help at Barbara’s mission. Jayden Baldry is also outstanding as Bill Walker, a furious and deeply troubled man who stirs up a whirlwind of danger and trouble at the mission site.
As mentioned, Walker is exceptional as the patriarch Andrew – he captures this man’s unabashed take on the material world perfectly.
Andrew is deeply practical and primarily all about the ‘here and now’. But he’s also a likeable fellow, who seems to have a heart just the same. Walker nails his complexities really well – from anger to humour to his efforts to empathize.
A few local Salvationists are also taking part in the production, including Major Larry Bridger of the Red Deer Salvation Army church.
Major Barbara originally premiered in 1905. That’s worth remembering, as it likely reflects the theatrical styles of the time – lots of dialogue, for one. In our whirlwind pace these days, it can be tough to slow down and really absorb the messages and historical richness of a play like this. But I think it’s worth it.
Kudos to the students for not just exemplary memory work, but for largely hitting the dialect as well.
Tickets are available through Black Knight Ticket Centre – visit www.blackknightinn.ca.