BWW Review: AN INSPECTOR CALLS at Chicago Shakespeare Theater
AN INSPECTOR CALLS is a gripping theatrical experience from start-to-finish. Director Stephen Daldry's breathtaking revival of J.B. Priestley's 1946 thriller had its origins in 1992 and comes to Chicago Shakespeare Theater now as part of an international tour. Though Daldry originally conceived of this staging decades ago and Priestly has set his play in 1912, this production possesses both a timeliness and a timelessness that make it deeply impactful now. AN INSPECTOR CALLS is a legitimate thriller that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats with its sustained suspense, but the play is also a resonant commentary on humankind's obligations to one another-and the dire consequences that result from those who forget that basic tenant of kindness. The beauty of Daldry's production is that neither the mystery nor the messaging feel overwrought; every moment of AN INSPECTOR CALLS maintains integrity and interest.
AN INSPECTOR CALLS opens with a jaw-dropping onstage rainstorm on a quiet British street, breathtakingly designed by Ian O'Neill. It is no exaggeration to say that this production has one of the most stunning sets I've ever seen. On this cobblestone street sits the magnificently designed house of the wealthy Birling family. Notably, the house sits above the other set elements, a telling metaphor for the way the Birlings seem themselves and an indication of just how far they might fall. Stephen Warbeck's music, Sebastian Frost's sound design, and Rick Fisher's lighting work together to create a suitable chilling environment for the play's events.
AN INSPECTOR CALLS introduces audiences to the well-off Birling family, who have gathered to celebrate the engagement of daughter Sheila Birling to Gerald Croft, who happens to be the son of one of the town's most successful businessmen. Thus, the marriage promises to pay great dividends for the Birling family as a whole, while ensuring Sheila a comfortable lifestyle. The evening's celebrations are interrupted, however, when the Birling's housekeeper Edna lets an unexpected visitor into the house: Inspector Goole. The inspector has arrived to investigate the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith. As Inspector Goole interrogates each member of the Birling family and Gerald, dark secrets are revealed. And the secrets are dark enough, of course, that they just might unravel the family.
While the story and setting of AN INSPECTOR CALLS are positively fascinating on their own, the ensemble makes the tension all the richer. As the titular Inspector, Liam Brennan gives a masterful performance. Brennan commands the stage like the ringmaster of the production itself; he enters from the audience and into the world of the play. He also cleverly delivers some of his lines directly to the audience; it is clear that his Inspector Goole is the one really in charge here. Lianne Harvey is magnificent as Sheila, as she manages to convey the character's simultaneous naiveté and shrewdness. While the other members of the Birling family and Gerald seem inclined to ignore Sheila's opinions, Harvey makes clear to the audience that we'd better listen. As her brother Eric, Hamish Riddle gives a convincing performance as a drunk but also manages to bestow sympathy on the character. Jeff Harmer cuts a formidable and despicable figure as patriarch Arthur Birling. Christine Kavanagh conveys matriarch Sybil's immense self-importance and false sense of charity. She also has rather impeccable comedic timing, particularly in the moments as she prepares for Inspector Goole to question her. In addition to the larger ensemble, the cast at Chicago Shakespeare Theater also includes some young Chicago actors and Chicago supernumeraries for this tour stop.
Under the deft vision of Daldry and in the hands of this remarkable cast and design team, AN INSPECTOR CALLS is positively electrifying and eerily resonant in these divisive times.
Photo Credit: Mark Douet