MAJOR BARBARA, Shaw Chicago, at the Chicago Cultural Center. This city-sponsored ensemble specializing in George Bernard Shaw's writings provides an invaluable service to a theater scene saturated with Shakespeare but suffering from Shavian deprivation. The troupe's free concert readings are usually well suited to plays emphasizing intellectual debate rather than action. But the format has limitations, and Major Barbara exceeds them.
This 1905 comedy--about a munitions manufacturer who convinces his Salvation Army-sergeant daughter that his cannon factory offers truer salvation (in the form of gainful employment) than her pious charity--does not wear well. Andrew Undershaft, the play's benevolently dictatorial hero, simply doesn't ring true given the toll in death and suffering exacted by the past century's real-life Undershafts and their clients. In order to believe in Barbara's conversion to her father's gospel of enlightened power we need to see her emotional transformation--which the readers-theater format doesn't allow. Jennifer Erin Roberts (the electrifying Dorothy of Roadworks Productions' Wizard of Oz-inspired Was) never brings Barbara to life; without a strong Barbara, even well-spoken performances by the rest of the company (including William J. Norris as Undershaft and Matt Diehl as Barbara's lover Adolphus) can't overcome our skepticism about the benefits of capitalist warmongering.