MAJOR BARBARA by Bernard Shaw, directed by Joseph Ziegler, with Diana Donnelly, Benedict Campbell, Ben Carlson, Mary Haney and Evan Buliung. Presented by the Shaw Festival at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Runs in rep to October 29. $42-$82. 1-800-511-7429. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Major Barbara is one of those Shaw classics that has you rooting for a character one minute and disagreeing with that same figure's argument the next. Figuring out what's right or wrong has never been so topsy-turvy.
The Barbara of the title ( Diana Donnelly ) is an officer in the Salvation Army dedicated to helping the indigent and making the world a better place. Adolphus Cusins ( Ben Carlson ), a professor of Greek who's infatuated with her, has joined the army to be near her.
But try as she might to incline to the side of good, Barbara finds that she's also fascinated by her estranged father, Andrew Undershaft ( Benedict Campbell ), who's made his fortune - and of course the family's - in the munitions trade.
That triangle is key to the story, and it's telling that Shaw makes Undershaft the most sparkling, clever and seductive figure. Campbell gives him the requisite charm and wit to make us at least consider his arguments about war; his religion is based on gunpowder and money, and he proves that no one is immune to the draw of at least one of his two gods.
Surrounding them are some theatrically attractive characters - the family's mother ( Mary Haney ), the simplistic, upper-class-twit Charles ( Evan Buliung ), engaged to Barbara's sister Sarah ( Charlotte Gowdy ), and a series of poor folk dependent on or striking out against the Sally Ann ( Sharry Flett , Andrew Bunker , Jay Turvey and Patrick Galligan ). This cast understands the script's theatricality as well as its arguments.
The final act, under the strong direction of Joseph Ziegler , is the most striking, as we journey to Undershaft's munitions factory town and discover the level of his humanity. It's here, too, that the characters undergo their most severe test and have to make their most profound choices.
What the audience takes away from the production are the winning performances of Campbell and Carlson, the latter as the quiet academic who becomes an impassioned saviour of humankind. Donnelly has her moments, but there's a spirit, energy and - in the play's middle section - a sense of anguish that she lacks. The result unbalances the three-sided relationship.