"Funny" is the last adjective that you might expect would apply to a philosophical play from 1905 that centers on a major in the Salvation Army and her estranged, munitions manufacturer father. But George Bernard Shaw's 109-year-old comedy Major Barbara, now in a new production by A.C.T. in collaboration with Theatre Calgary, does indeed hold up in the comedy department, thanks in large part to a couple of wittily sketched characters and Shaw's immense talent for banter. But prepare yourself for a lengthy, talky, idea-driven play that is, like many productions in A.C.T.'s last few seasons, more a stodgy artifact of theater history than a vibrant, living work.

The play begins with a set-up that has everything to do with family dynamics and a dramatic framework about inheritance. The well-off Undershaft family, presided over by biting, overbearing matriarch Lady Britomart Undershaft (played with delightful pomposity by Kandis Chappell) is facing a financial crisis as one daughter is engaged to be married to a man whose inheritance won't come to him for several years, and a second daughter, Barbara (the lovely and compelling Gretchen Hall), has committed herself to charitable work and to a man with no money of his own. Lady Britomart also has concerns about her only son, since her children's estranged father, Andrew Undershaft (Dean Paul Gibson), wants to continue a family tradition of passing on his munitions factory to an orphan or "foundling," of which he was once one, but would thereby disinherit his son. This conflict is at the root of why mother and father are now separated, but she invites him to the house to reintroduce him to his daughters and ultimately to ask him for money to support them.

The drama that follows brings the stately, hard-headed father to visit the Salvation Army mission where Barbara administers religious counsel and bread to the poor alongside her fiance, Adolphus "Dolly" Cusins (played affably by Nicholas Pelczar), only to have him try to buy his daughter's affection by donating a huge sum to help save the mission. Barbara tries to refuse the donation, but ultimately gives in for the good of the Salvation Army, taking money for good work from a bad source, only to leave herself in a state of spiritual and moral disillusionment.

The entire family then gets a glimpse of the munitions factory itself and the idyllic factory town it supports, and herein we see Shaw's ultimate point borne out through some very long monologues by Andrew Undershaft — which are, I will say, delivered admirably, and with good rhythm and force, by Gibson. Shaw despised economic inequality, and saw poverty, not war, as the ultimate evil. Barbara has an epiphany in the final act, after telling her father, "You may be a devil, but God still speaks through you sometimes." He forces her to see that giving people "a scrap of bread and treacle" is no way to save their souls, and that the Salvation Army's ultimate weakness is that it doesn't solve the basic problem of poverty — it addresses the symptoms but not the disease. And both she and her husband to be, Cusins, open their minds to moral relativism.

The work of the cast, especially Gibson, Pelczar, and Hall, and director Dennis Garnhum, does well to keep the pace brisk while still allowing Shaw's complicated and dense script reveal its intricacies and wit. But I was still left feeling more bludgeoned by the moral back-and-forth than inspired by Shaw's words. As light as the mood is kept by the goofiness and funny asides of Shaw's supporting characters, it is hard to escape the didactic and sermonic nature of that final act, in which most of the cast have to linger quietly on the stage while Shaw, via Undershaft, lays out his entire philosophy. It is fiery and provoking in a way that makes for interesting theater, but exhausting nonetheless.

And I felt especially bludgeoned by a single directorial choice, in which an image of mutilated weapons-testing dummies closes the show, which misguidedly contradicts Shaw's intents. Garnhum perhaps couldn't resist this obvious anti-war message, yet this completely misses the point and distracts from an otherwise nuanced play.

Major Barbara plays through February 2. Get tickets here.