The great thing about George Bernard Shaw — and the thing that plays out so well in American Conservatory Theater’s excellent production of his 1905 intellectual comedy “Major Barbara”— is that there are no good guys and bad guys.
More than that, Shaw apparently liked to give his most electrifying arguments to the characters most likely to be perceived as villains. Even the buffoons are allowed an occasional wise observation.
In “Major Barbara,” Lady Britomart (the wonderfully dry and imperious Kandis Chappell) has summoned her estranged husband, Andrew Undershaft, a wealthy and successful manufacturer of cannons for the war industry.
Although she dismissed him years ago, when her three children were very young, she needs him now — for his money. Their daughter Barbara (played with charm and grace by Gretchen Hall) is a Salvation Army volunteer — no income there — and engaged to a low-earning professor of Greek (Nicholas Pelczar, impressively comic and impassioned).
The other two children have just as few prospects: the nerdy Stephen (an amusingly twitchy Stafford Perry) and Sarah (Elyse Price), who’s engaged to the terminally foolish Charles (Tyrell Crews).
Undershaft, played with great verve and conviction by Dean Paul Gibson, is immediately drawn to Barbara, whose principles and convictions, although the opposite of his, are just as strong, as is her self-confidence.
The action moves, over the course of several acts, from the Undershaft house to the Salvation Army courtyard (with fine characterizations by Dan Hiatt, Valerie Planche, Dan Clegg, Nemuna Ceesay, Brian Rivera and Jennifer Clement), back to the house and finally to Undershaft’s immaculate, smoothly-running cannon factory.
Set designer Daniel Ostling’s nonrealistic background of partly moveable, interlocking window frames works better in the Salvation Army and factory scenes than in the Undershaft drawing room, where it appears distractingly busy.
When Undershaft offers Barbara enough money to keep her beloved but financially challenged Army going, Barbara’s belief system won’t allow her to accept the fortune he acquired from manufacturing deadly weapons. The two are in conflict, with the other principal characters drawn into the fray.
Under the direction of Dennis Garnhum of Theatre Calgary, Shaw’s well-balanced arguments offering opposing views of the inevitable and unassailable qualities of human nature are loud and clear. And Garnhum and the cast bring out all the nuances of the playwright’s prodigious wit. Garnhum’s final silent, visual image is an astute choice.
Presented by American Conservatory Theater/Theatre Calgary
Where: 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 2
Tickets: $20 to $140
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org