She may be nearing the century mark but these days, Major Barbara is looking mighty youthful. George Bernard Shaw’s 1905 comedy, about an heiress who joins the Salvation Army and tangles with her munitions-maker father, has never really gone out of style. But, as produced by New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company just as anti-globalization protesters rioted in Genoa and a the Bush administration proposed its nuclear missile shield, the play seemed positively ripped from today’s headlines.
What’s most interesting about the Roundabout revival is that its pertinence comes though loud and clear in a totally traditional staging. Under the direction of Daniel Sullivan (Proof), the cast, led by Cherry Jones, Dana Ivey, David Warner, and Denis O’Hare, makes beautiful intellectual music out of Shaw’s provocative arguments. Their precisely calibrated performances are thoroughly grounded in the period by the designs of John Lee Beatty and Jane Greenwood.
Greenwood designed Major Barbara once before, in the 1970s, at Stratford, CT; the stars were Jane Alexander and Lee Richardson. "I remember putting Jane Alexander in peach taffeta," she recalls, laughing. "What was I thinking? The play is set in winter." For the Roundabout revival, Greenwood says she checked out Gabriel Pascal’s 1941 film version, which starred Wendy Hiller, Robert Morley, and Rex Harrison. "I found it interesting that it was updated, designed for the late 30s," she says. "John Lee looked at it, too, and also thought that was an interesting idea. But Dan felt we must root it and capture the reality of its own period." Beatty adds, "Dan wanted to present Shaw’s work without imposing a huge single idea on it."
And that is exactly what Sullivan got from his designers. Major Barbara takes place in three locations: the library belonging to Barbara’s mother, Lady Britomart; the yard outside the Salvation Army shelter where Barbara works; and the munitions factory run by Barbara’s father, Andrew Undershaft. In Beatty’s design scheme, each setting is defined by its own dominant metal: Gold for the library, tin for the Salvation Army, and steel for the munitions factory.
The library is a box set placed far, far downstage, with a doorway at stage right, and another doorway at rear center that reveals a stairway leading down to the first floor. The downstage placement of the setting, says Beatty, is intentional. Lady Britomart is, by most standards, wealthy, but not wealthy enough; she needs money from her estranged husband to set up their three children in their own households. Thus the library setting is a kind of gilded cage, in which the characters are hemmed in by their (rather deluxe) economic dependency. The set’s green-gold walls have a rusted patina. "There’s something not quite bandbox fresh about it," says Beatty, who notes that he drew his visual inspiration from the paintings of John Singer Sargeant (Amanda Foreman’s biography of the ill-fated Georgianna, 18th–century Duchess of Devonshire, was a useful source of inspiration for some of the set’s furnishings). Of course, this being an English household of the period, it is heavily laden with bric-a-brac, paintings, heavy furniture, and drapes, although, the designer says that compared to the real Victorian thing, "it’s a little underdecorated for the time. Shaw says Lady Britomart has surprisingly good taste, but I don’t think she does."
One particularly challenging aspect of the set is its heavily patterned carpeting, a detail that Beatty deemed necessary because, he says, "Carpeting is a British preoccupation." In fact, he adds, "We spent many days cutting up a runner and three 9 x 12 pieces from ABC Carpeting, putting them into a forced perspective pattern. Then we had someone from Montauk Carpet come in and glue it down. If you sit in the mezzanine, it’s a symphony of carpeting." (Interestingly, the capitals on the set were borrowed from Manhattan Theatre Club, from Beatty’s design of Alan Ayckbourn’s futuristic farce Comic Potential).
As the characters leave the library for the real world, Sullivan wanted the setting to express a sense of expansion. Thus the room splits into two pieces and revolves, recomposing itself as the Salvation Army shelter, an open yard designed in metallic tones—black, white, silver, and gray—that create a strongly monochromatic look. The back wall of the set—the actual back wall of the theatre—is covered with period posters for various forms of alcohol, a reminder that drink is the number-one problem among the poor who come to Barbara’s shelter. (Shaw was a famous teetotaler himself).
In this production, the intermission comes after the shelter scene, allowing the revolving units to roll back to the library setting. The double revolve design was a challenge, Beatty notes, as Sullivan demanded speedy scenic transitions, and given the theatre’s size, "It revolves to within 1.5" of every wall in the theatre." The second half begins with another scene in the library, which is followed by a transition to the Undershaft factory. At this point, says Beatty, the library walls, "instead of revolving, jackknife off of pivot points, as the pieces of the factory fly into place."
Beatty notes that the third setting is the least faithful to the script. Shaw set the scene outside, which allowed for a vista view of the proletarian paradise that Undershaft has created for his workers. However, Beatty worried that such a depiction might look "conformist and oppressive" to modern eyes, so he relocated the action inside a huge steel shed, dominated by a giant gun, with the Undershaft sign seen in reverse, placed on the rear exterior of the building. The gun, he says wryly, is called a "long Cecil"; it’s a relic from the Boer War and is named after Cecil Rhodes.
Just as Beatty’s design evokes three very different levels of English turn-of-the-century society, so too Greenwood had to provide clothing for various social classes. The designer notes that the play’s period, 1904-5, "is a difficult year, in that it’s slightly transitional for the women. A lot of people don’t find it attractive, with that full, loose bodice, and an 'S' curve. I think it’s wonderfully elegant and unusual."
The curtain rises on Dana Ivey, cast as the formidable Lady Britomart in a long gown made of ecru lace, with a purple underdress. The effect is more than imposing; the character is immediately established as the ruler of the house. The dress had an unusual genesis, Greenwood says. "I went to Doyle’s Gallery for an auction of antique clothing; there was an exhibition on the day before, and I wanted to see how the dresses were cut. There was this dress that was in a bit of a mess—the lining was rotted. I said to my assistant, MaryAnn Smith, `We should go back and bid on that.’ And we got it! I took it to Eric Winterling, who built the show, and said, `We’re going to put it all back together, with a dull color underneath. The top was cotton, in good condition, and the underlayer was rotted silk." Winterling says that the reconstruction was extremely difficult. "It was like a puzzle, carefully unpicking the dry-rotted lining pieces in order to reconstruct the fitted shell inside. That shell pattern, as well as the original construction techniques of the dress, served as the basis for the silhouette of the show." Greenwood adds, "I worried that it would stick out like a sore thumb, but in fact I think it works very well. It has a great authority at the beginning of the play. It makes you realize who she is, that she comes from a good family."
For Barbara herself, Greenwood, laughing about that peach dress for Jane Alexander, says, "I saw the error of my ways." Thus she has dressed Jones in sensible tailored skirts and blouses to complement her bluestocking ideals. Henny Russell, who plays her sister, Sarah, on the other hand is treated to a series of pastel period outfits, which accentuate her femininity and leisure-class lifestyle.
For men, the period dictates a long coat, with high collars and ties. "It’s just a much more formal way of dressing," says Greenwood, who also notes that the coats create a flattering line on nearly any body type. "Zak Orth [who plays Barbara’s brother] said, `I just love being dressed up like this.' " The designer drew on photographs from the Salvation Army Museum for her research on the uniforms worn by Barbara and her colleagues. "The uniforms are made of serge wool," she adds, "They’re very durable. The Salvation Army is very specific about not being luxurious in any way. We found notes from the army suggesting that gloves shouldn’t be worn unless it was absolutely necessary—and then, they should be wool or cotton, not leather." The poor patrons of the shelter are dressed in raggedy outfits, many of which were rented from the firm Angel’s in London.
Accessories for the costumes are a combination of found and made objects. "I get hats made at Lynne Mackey Studio," says Greenwood. "She’s an extraordinary milliner." Wigs were created by Paul Huntley. "When doesn’t he?" Greenwood asks rhetorically. "He does such beautiful work. I adhere to his judgment about the curl and the wave, in the framework of the period. He’s so good about making people look their best." Indeed, they must look their best, as Major Barbara’s limited run has been extended twice; it is now set to close on September 16.
Other personnel on Major Barbara, aside from those already mentioned included assistant set designer Eric Renschler, technical supervisor Steve Beers, and properties shopper Denise Grillo. Scenery was built by Hudson Scenic Studios, Inc., Exhibit Graphics and Display, and Centerline Studios. Beatty’s next project is the new Neil Simon comedy, 45 Seconds From Broadway, which opens in October. Greenwood is hard at work on several projects, including an Antony and Cleopatra for the Guthrie Theatre. Next up at the Roundabout is The Women by Clare Boothe Luce.