If there's any mystery in Remy Bumppo's An Inspector Calls, it's how this play is considered a classic of the mid-20th century English theatre. J. B. Priestley's drama is less an Agatha Christie parlor mystery and more a heavy (heavy!) handed morality play delivered with all the subtlety of a Hallmark Channel Christmas Special.
It's 1912 and the upper class Birling family is celebrating the engagement of their only daughter, the high-strung Sheila (Isabel Ellison throwing herself into a thankless part) to Gerald Croft (Greg Matthew Anderson), a budding businessman who is as much an outsider as he is an unwitting player in this familial "whodunit." The family patriarch (the perfectly blunderful Roderick Peeples) lectures the newly anointed couple about the values of self-made success and the virtues of protecting one's interests while his withdrawn son (Luke Daigle) and strong-willed wife (Lia Mortensen, giving a delightfully crisp and cutting performance) look on.
And then, you guessed it: an inspector calls. As the mysterious and monomaniacal Inspector Goole, Nick Sandys radiates an unrelenting drive to get to the bottom of a recent murder. Well, a suicide, really -- but one that any number of people may have had a hand in. The next two hours, plus intermission, include Inspector Goole grilling his suspects while they each, much to their surprise, burst forth with candid confessions that weave together a tapestry of bad behavior and societal wrongdoings.
However, that tapestry isn't very interesting to look at when complete.
Simply put, Priestley's play has not aged well. The mystery and the morality lesson are unlocked in the first 45 minutes, but that doesn't stop the players (mostly Sheila) from rehashing and re-rehashing lessons learned and discoveries made merely moments ago, as if to ensure we fully grasp the weight of the message being thrust upon us. And, without giving anything away, that message is indeed a chilling one -- if it were delivered in a more subtle and creeping way. Granted, in 1946 (the year this play premiered), a more straightforward approach may have been necessary, given this play broke a lot of ground in confronting the decay of societal values. But that ground feels like well-worn territory with this viewing.
Directed by David Darlow, this deftly cast yet dutiful production attempts to play up the metaphysical aspects of the play, but with limited effect -- quite literally, I might add. From my vantage point, which was the center section of Greenhouse's thrust stage, I could scarcely make out Alan Donahue's projections, which I suspect add some evocative color to the storytelling, but I sadly can't confirm that given they were shrouded by backstage scenery. Much like the play itself, excess muddled a potentially provocative idea.
"An Inspector Calls" plays through January 12 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, Upstairs Mainstage. More info here >