Without ever brandishing so much as a pistol or pocketknife, upheaval and conflict are at the center of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, a play that lays out in no uncertain terms the dangers of unchecked privilege, entitlement and hypocrisy. Set in 1912 England, the play was first produced in 1945 for audiences, one can safely assume, still very raw with war wounds both literal and figurative. A drawing room drama in three acts, the play centers around the upper-crust Birling family and the police inspector who calls on them one evening with troubling news of a young woman’s suicide. In the process of questioning them about the events leading up to her tragic choice, the Birlings find themselves coming entirely undone by their own actions (or lack thereof), their façade of reality breaking off like chunks of glacier crashing into the sea below.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents the revival of this classic British play as directed by Stephen Daldry (best known for films like The Hours and The Reader) for its revival back in 1992 (it won the Tony then for Best Revival). On stage at The Yard for just three weeks, Priestley’s stark, noir thriller is as relevant and impressive today as it must have been nearly 75 years ago. Presented without intermission, the show clips along briskly as a core cast of just a half dozen unravels before us the mystery of Eva Smith’s untimely passing and how each of their lives intersected with hers.
Liam Brennan is Inspector Goole, a man of high morals and quick wit, who interrupts the Birlings’ evening after they’ve just celebrated daughter Sheila’s (Lianne Harvey) engagement to the well-connected Gerald Croft (Andrew Macklin). Patriarch Arthur Birling (Jeff Harmer) has just finished telling Gerald how he anticipates a knighthood any moment now, what with his service to the crown over the years. Sheila’s brother Eric (Hamish Riddle) joins the men for a cigar after dinner, while she and her mother Sybil (Christine Kavanagh) retire to discuss wedding plans. But their convivial bubble is all too easily popped as Goole recounts his heartbreaking evening watching Ms. Smith expire and begins to reveal what’s led him to the Birlings’ door.
To go any further in the plot of this sharp riddle of a play would be a disservice to anyone unfamiliar and eager to experience it firsthand (as all should be). Suffice it to say that the secrets and truths revealed over time, both in the character’s deeds and personalities, are eye-opening in a way that will have you checking your own moral compass more than once along the way. Goole pushes and prods to get what he wants out of each of the Birlings (and Gerald), sometimes asking questions over and over again until they’re met with a satisfying answer. Even more telling, sometimes all the inspector has to do is sit back and let this family, built on pretense and etiquette as it is, destroy itself.
Dressed for dinner in gowns and tails (costumes by Ian MacNeil), the family poses a blunt contrast to the staging (also by MacNeil) of a post-war British street, its cobblestones a wreck and one of those iconic red phone booths in the corner looking battered and broken. Perched above it all (again, literally and figuratively) is the Birling home, essentially a drawing room encased by the exterior walls of an Edwardian mansion that swing open to reveal the dollhouse inside. The harsh lighting from either side of the stage only adds to the brutal night we’re in for.
An Inspector Calls utilizes techniques (breaking the fourth wall, etc.) that at the time of its original production must have been perceived as quite daring. Today, these elements may not be as rare; they do, however, pack just as much of a punch. Brennan’s key monologue could easily drift into preachy and insincere ground; choices in ensemble casting and thoughtful blocking (not to mention the actor’s own talent) keep the moment well on this side of powerful.
By the time Goole is done with the Birlings, they’ve all been put through the wringer, and it’s a credit to Brennan and the rest of the cast that despite the beating, we’re as engaged as ever. Sitting down to essentially watch people talk for nearly two hours, particularly for a play that’s essentially all exposition as we learn what’s already happened, is a less-than-exciting prospect. The combination of Priestley’s smart, incisive writing and a cast more than capable of driving the plot’s various moods and energies keeps you on the edge of your seat. Be drawn into the quiet moments as Sheila reflects on the ripple effects of what seemed at the time to be an inconsequential fit of frustration. Be startled by Arthur’s fury when he realizes Eric’s role in all this mess, a riveting moment as the two men—one broken and vulnerable, the other shocked and angry—nearly come to blows. And be prepared for everything in between, as well.
“We aren’t the same people who sat down to dinner,” Sheila poignantly notes in Act 2. Indeed, we are not.
An Inspector Calls runs through March 10 at The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater; for tickets and a complete performance schedule, click here.
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