An Inspector Calls
At Chicago Shakespeare Theater (Yard)
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – The Chicago Shakespeare Theater is treating local playgoers to a real treat, the National Theatre of Great Britain’s touring production of “An Inspector Calls. The J. B. Priestley drama opened in London in 1945 and then lay fallow for almost 40 years until it exploded on the London and then international scene in 1993 in a stunning makeover by director Stephen Daldry. That makeover, directed by Daldry, has been imported to the CST Yard Theater with a British cast and all its eye popping visual effects in place.
“An Inspector Calls” originally was a realistic thriller with mystical overtones. The action takes place in an industrial city in Yorkshire. The location is the home of the complacent and upscale Birling family gathered to celebrate the engagement of daughter Sheila Birling to the eligible bachelor Gerald Croft. We see early on that family patriarch Arthur Birling is a social climbing, smug member of the upper class with little sympathy for the lower class and its problems.
The small party’s air of self congratulation is disturbed by the unexpected appearance of a police inspector named Goole. He announces that he is making inquiries into the suicide of a young woman who just died in a local infirmary after swallowing disinfectant. The family at first disallows any knowledge of the suicide or anything more than a superficial interest in her agonizing death. But under the inspector’s relentless prodding it turns out that the family had everything to do with the girl’s death, individually contributing to her destruction by thoughtless or cruel actions. The family is shaken by revelations of their complicity in the girl’s suicide, and then there is a twist that turns the plot on its head.
The socialist Priestley wrote his play with political and social motivations. The storytelling is gripping as it builds in intensity but overall “An Inspector Calls” is an old fashioned liberal morality play demanding that society’s movers and shakers show more compassion and sympathy for the lower economic classes. Priestley’s intent may be noble but the narrative gets a bit preachy. Still, the character of the mysterious Inspector Goole fascinates and his skill in uncovering the damage the thoughtless Birling clan inflicted on the young woman, driving her to suicide, is engrossing.
The play, originally written in three acts, is presented in a continuous 1 hour and 45 minutes. Our first image is a boy with a flashlight moving across the dark stage. Then we see the Birling home, a reduced sized residence elevated on stilts. The elegance of the house is set within a landscape that suggests a blasted battlefield, with glowering and swirling clouds hovering overhead. A silent group of ragged refugees occasionally gathers at the side of the stage, their appearance unacknowledged by the Birling characters (and never clearly explained by the play). In some scenes, a Birling leaves the secure domestic interior to descend into the gloomy foreground.
As the play reaches its surprise plot twist, the Birling house suddenly and thunderously collapses into a ruin, one of the most startling effects I’ve seen on a stage in years. A little later, the house is reassembled in audience view, and then comes the final narrative turn that sends the audience into the night trying to assimilate all the visual whiz bang they have just seen.
The play opened at the end of World War II and Priestley obviously had much to say about the state of British society emerging from the shattering world war. His play delivers a forceful commentary on social responsibility and the evils of society’s lust for greed and power, a message that might have connected more with war-weary British audiences than American spectators. The stage effects are undeniably fascinating, but for many patrons those effects compete with the play’s theme rather than illuminate it. Still, as an imaginative slice of stagecraft, the Daldry revisionist staging is brilliant and elevates Priestley’s rather obvious philosophical intentions into a not-to-be-missed viewing experience.
There are about a dozen mute characters hovering on the fringes of the action, but there are really only six roles that matter, all performed splendidly by the British visitors. Liam Brennan is outstanding as the inspector, who may be just an unexplained intruder or an avenging angel. The character invites audience speculation. I thought Inspector Goole bore some resemblance to one of the ghosts who visits Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” but that may be a reach.
The Birling family is led by Jeff Harmer as the complacent and dictatorial head of the household. Christine Kavanagh is his wife Sybil and Hamish Riddle and Lianne Harvey are the adult Birling children Eric and Sheila. Andrew Macklin is Sheila’s fiancé Gerald Croft. There is also a silent appearance by Diana Payne-Myers as Edna, the Birling maid. The actress, in her early 90’s, makes an often humorous impression as she scurries about the stage trying to be helpful to her officious employers.
The acting deserves its plaudits but the viewer can be excused for paying more attention to the show’s design, dominated by Ian MacNeil’s memorable sets, augmented by Rick Fisher’s lighting design and Sebastian Frost’s sound design. The only criticism is the musical injections that overemphasize emotional moments with portentous bits like outtakes from an Alfred Hitchcock suspense film.
It could be argued that the British revival constitutes two separate plays, Priestley’s realistic original and Daldry’s extravagant expressionistic revision. Many of the special effects, plus those silent figures on the fringe of the action, are intriguing to watch but aren’t helpful in explicating the play’s main themes. On the other hand, those themes are so black and white in presentation that Daldry’s creative dose of special effects can’t be challenged, at least on theatrical terms. Any way the viewer slices it, our British visitors have given local audiences a memorable 105 minutes.
The show gets a rating of
“An Inspector Calls” runs through March 10 at the Chicago Shakespeare Yard Theatre on Navy Pier. Performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 1 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $40 to $88. Call 312 595 5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com.
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