Give her a medal

Major Barbara

By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Ann Bowen
The Pulse Ensemble Theater Co.
432 West 42nd Street (695-1596)
Equity showcase (closes December 5th)
Review by Steve Gold

Major Barbara examines the troubling issue of when, if ever, tainted money can be used in support of a noble cause. The Pulse Ensemble Theater's sparkling production made Shaw's words sing with a rare, effortless grace, while simultaneously realizing the play's robust comic potential.

The plot is fairly simple. Barbara Undershaft (JulieHera Destefano), a young heiress, is a major in a local Salvation Army shelter. The shelter is out of money and therefore on the verge of extinction. At the same time, Barbara's estranged father Andrew (Steve Abbruscato) is visiting the home where she lives along with her brother Stephen (Carl J. Danielsen), sister Sarah (Sara Dandridge), and their mother Lady Britomart (Marina Re). Barbara invites her father to the shelter, where he cynically pledges five thousand pounds to keep it open. To Barbara's dismay, her superior Mrs. Baines (Ann Gardner) gleefully accepts the money, thereby shattering any illusions Barbara had about the Army. Shaw seems to feel that no one is immune from worldly corruption, and yet his genuine affection for these well-meaning do-gooders shines through.

Ann Bowen presided over a cast that was, without exception, outstanding. In the title role, Ms. DeStefano beautifully conveyed Barbara's transformation from gung-ho idealist to profound disappointment to, finally, a kind of hard-won wisdom; likewise Nicholas Piper, as her boyfriend Adolphus, in his journey from sardonic nonchalance to someone with a nascent social conscience. Mr. Abbruscato supplied the right blend of serenity and ruthless commonsense as Andrew Undershaft, a man whose religion is "money and gunpowder." Ms. Re was razor-sharp as the oppressively imperious matriarch who schemes to get her ninny of a son, Stephen (played with delightful fussiness by Mr. Danielsen), to take over the Undershaft empire, but the old man is too smart for that. As Sarah Undershaft, Ms. Dandridge, along with Kevin Rolston as her boyfriend, Charles Lomax, gave perfect life to the sort of useless, upper-class deadwood that Shaw had a ball lampooning.

Then there are the denizens of Barbara's shelter. Once again, the casting here was flawless. Pamela Tate as Rummy, Pepe Servanti as Snobby, Timothy Boisvert as Peter Shirley, and, last but emphatically not least, John Arthur Lewis as the initially nasty Bill Walker, all achieved an uncommonly high degree of credibility-you could practically smell the fish 'n' chips in the air. As Jenny Hill, the impossibly saintly Salvation Army worker, Becky Leonard was the very picture of sweetness. Ms. Gardner, in the small but crucial role of Mrs. Baines, was successful in portraying matchless hypocrisy masquerading as moral staunchness. The galaxy of authentic British and Irish accents made this show a pleasure to listen to.

Hedrick Goldman's lighting was wholly appropriate: soft lighting for the library scenes; harsh for the missionary shelter. The more or less contemporary costumes were designed with sly wit by Melissa Schlachtmeyer. Roger Mooney's sets, especially for the library, were highly attractive. This Major Barbara deserves a promotion-let's make the gal a Brigadier General. Thanks to the Pulse Ensemble, she's earned it.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Set: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 1999 Steve Gold