It appears that I am the only reviewer in the greater Washington metropolitan area to not throw my back out hurling roses, kisses, accolades, and all manner of word-trophies at Steven Daldry’s acclaimed production of Priestly’s “An Inspector Calls.” Neither am I tempted, in a fury of ecstasy, to throw myself on its golden dais as it parades past. Not that it’s bad. It isn’t. In fact, it’s very interesting to look at. I just have some issues with it.
Priestly’s best known play, a deliberately conscience-pricking “Who killed Cock Robin” story, was born in the aftermath of two world wars, and he had a point. Priestly had learned the devastating emptiness of his government’s promises in the trenches of WWI. He returned to an England crumbling, physically and socially, still led by those whose wealth and position had always called the shots. Edwardian England was dead, but the Edwardian assumption of privilege-by-right was alive and well. And then came WWII.
The 1945 premiere of “An Inspector Calls” – ironically on a Leningrad stage – met with feuding responses by the time it got to England, but amateur companies embraced it. Those productions kept it alive for decades before it was finally relegated to the hat box shelf of the closet with other overused and under-relevant parlor pieces.
And then Steven Daldry and 1992 came along. Vowing to take a fresh look at this old oyster, he and the National Theatre wound up with a tour that moved from London to Broadway and back again, garnering bouquets of Tonys, Oliviers, and Drama Desk Awards. Now it’s back, a guest of the Shakespeare Theatre at Harman Hall.
The premise is not difficult. It’s 1912, and the self-satisfied, well-to-do Birling family eats, drinks, and makes merry over the engagement of their daughter, Sheila, to the young industrialist, Gerald Croft – a match that will increase everyone’s fortune. Amid the celebration, Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) arrives to announce the suicide of a young pregnant girl and interrogate the family about their connections to her. An uninterrupted hour and forty-five minutes traces a trajectory from denials to blustering defenses to a few warm spots of regretful acknowledgement, and in one case, unbearable guilt.
What surely sets this production apart from hundreds of conventional drawing room settings is the surrealistic staging. Ian MacNeil’s undersized Victorian dollhouse/mansion teeters on a mound in a dark, dystopian landscape under Rick Fisher’s evocative lights. Opening with rain pouring down on stage, fog fingering its way up, and wet cobblestones where street urchins play, the mood is well set for the unwelcome but persistent visitor. When the house splits open, we can see that its denizens, richly dressed in robber baron style (by Ian MacNeil as well) have barely room to move. One by one, down they come to the cobblestones where a silent but diligent maid (Diana Payne-Myers) anticipates their needs with a rug, chair, and tea.
Reactions are mixed as the individuals take a magnifying glass in search of their consciences. Mr. Birling (Jeff Harmer) comes up empty. While these are all first rate actors, I question the director for this cardboard cut-out of a character as he spouts all the bombastic sentiments that a newly minted socialist would put in the mouth of an industrialist. But then, we should not expect magical realism from a ‘message’ play.
If nothing else, Mr. Birling holds down one end of the spectrum. His son, Eric (Hamish Riddle) is on the other. Skittish, unreliable, an alcoholic to everyone but his mother, Eric embraces the information about the unfortunate girl and no doubt places it at the top of his long list of reasons to hate himself. Gerald Croft (Andrew Macklin), on the other hand, emerges as the only one who treated the unfortunate girl with compassion as well as affection – while courting the beautiful but naïve Sheila.
It’s a puzzle how the empty-headed Sheila (Lianne Harvey) who had the girl dismissed over a perceived slight can suddenly evolve into the reformer who has seen the light and lectures her family on their unwieldy sense of entitlement. She does, however, have some of the best tension breaking lines in the play. And then there’s Mrs. Birling (Christine Kavanagh). An imperious Lady Astor type, she has one moment of wavering before firmly concluding that she was quite right to exclude the desperate girl from her Women’s Club’s charity.
Beautiful garments trail in the mud, characters inexplicably undress, and a small impoverished crowd stands in silent witness.
Much has been made of Priestly’s manipulation of time, which adds a twist to the outcome – but changes nothing. And if you think that Inspector Goole is finished after the demands for self-examination are all but exhausted, then brace yourself for a cringe-inducing lecture to the audience in front of the curtain.
In spite of the faint whiff of Agatha Christie, there’s no doubt about who’s to blame: you, the careless rich, blundering mindlessly among the less fortunate; you, the privileged elite who use your positions to trample the poor downtrodden; NOT you, the well-heeled liberal in the audience who donates generously to the theatre, but surely the person sitting next to you.
WANT TO GO?
What: “An Inspector Calls”
Where: Shakespeare Theatre Co., Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F. St. NW, Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org
Playing through Dec. 23