On an April evening in 1912, an upper class British family gathers for a celebration. Arthur Birling is a wealthy factory owner and his daughter, Sheila, just became engaged to Gerald Croft, the son of one of Birling’s competitors. Joining in the festivities are Arthur’s wife, Sybil, and their son, Eric. The evening is interrupted by the arrival of Inspector Goole, who is investigating the suicide of a young woman, Eva Smith. Goole is not accusing anyone of killing Eva, but his persistent questioning soon uncovers the role each family member played in bringing about the young woman’s fate.
J.B. Priestley’s play was first performed in 1945 in the Soviet Union and then in 1946 in the U.K. In 1992, Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Crown), produced a revival for the National Theatre in London, thus calling renewed attention to a play once considered a classic of mid-20th century theatre. Daldry’s production has returned, opening a four-city tour on November 27 at D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre, followed by runs in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston.
A young street urchin attempts to pull up the heavy red curtain, an effort to gain admittance to a social class beyond his reach. The set is breathtaking – a dollhouse-like structure rises above the stage floor which is made to resemble gray cobblestones. We hear, rather than see, the party the Birlings are holding, toasting the young couple’s engagement. When the walls finally swing wide, we glimpse Mr. Birling (Jeff Harmer), Mrs. Birling (Christine Kavanagh), Eric Birling (Hamish Riddle), Sheila Birling (Lianne Harvey), and her fiancé, Gerald Croft (Andres Macklin).
The Birlings enjoy all the trappings of success – a beautiful home, expensive clothes, and elegant dinners. Mr. Birling boasts about the excellent port they are enjoying. There’s also talk about how Shelia will have to adjust to married life, accepting Gerald’s work schedule. But the young woman shows signs of independence, making it clear that Gerald will need to adjust, too. Mr. Birling sums it up: “Shelia’s a lucky girl – and I think you’re a pretty fortunate young man too, Gerald.” Truth be told, the marriage will benefit Mr. Birling financially, creating an alliance with a former competitor. The celebration comes to an abrupt end when Goole turns up, telling the Birlings about Eva’s death. The young woman died in an infirmary after swallowing strong disinfectant. Learning that the death was a suicide, Birling tells Goole: “I don’t understand why you should come here, inspector.” But Goole is just getting started.
Liam Brennan, Jeff Harmer, Hamish Riddle, Andrew Macklin
Priestley’s play tackles class differences, yet there’s much more to unpack in this three-act play. Having a social conscience, no matter one’s place in life, is key. Each of the Birlings had an opportunity to help Eva, but instead contributed to her downfall. Birling once employed Eva, but fired her after she joined a movement asking for higher wages. After a period of unemployment and living on the streets, Eva found a job in a shop called Milwards. She was fired after Sheila logged a complaint with the manager, saying she wouldn’t return and her mother would also cancel her account unless Eva was let go. But Sheila admits to the inspector that Eva did nothing wrong. “I’d been in a bad temper anyhow,” she says. The evidence continues to pile up, each slight to Eva one that contributed to the young woman’s feelings of hopelessness.
An Inspector Calls manages to hit home no matter when or where it’s staged. Certainly our current political climate makes this play a must see. But what I came away with is how, during a normal day, anything we might do – or not do – has the power to impact someone’s life. Chew out a sales clerk? Refuse to tip a cab driver? Complain to a restaurant manager about a waiter’s service? We may justify our actions, like Mr. Birling did, or express remorse afterwards, like Sheila did, but that might not be enough to right a wrong.
Another reason to see An Inspector Calls now at Shakespeare Theater – the stellar cast, several from the original 1992 production. Liam Brennan is particularly compelling as Inspector Goole. His presence, while authoritative, is also mysterious and menacing. Playing members of the Birling family, Harmer, Kavanagh, Harvey, and Riddle, as well as the future member, Macklin as Croft, have nailed the demeanor and accents. A stroke of brilliance – having them remain above in the home, towering over the inspector, visual evidence of their class standings. Special shout out for Diana Payne-Myers as Edna, the household servant, who says little but whose body language speaks volumes.
Photos by Mark Douet
An Inspector Calls
By J.B. Priestley
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street NW