Where: Remy Bumppo at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: though Jan. 12
By ANNE SPISELMAN
You wouldn’t immediately think of “An Inspector Calls” as a holiday show, but J. B. Priestley’s 1945 play is akin to Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” — without the Christmas cheer or happy ending. It may masquerade as a whodunit, but the moral message that we are all responsible for each other comes through loud and clear.
Indeed, in Remy Bumppo’s straightforward production at the Greenhouse Theater Center, director David Darlow establishes such a steady, staid pace that we might feel hammered over the head by the litany of abuses the capitalist-industrialist establishment heaps upon the masses. Or we would if the acting weren’t so compelling.
The setup — in case you don’t remember the ground-breaking, set-toppling touring version that turned the drawing-room drama into a surreal exploration of class and complacency — is that the upper middle-class Birling family has gathered in their Yorkshire dining room to celebrate the engagement of textile magnate Arthur Birling’s (Roderick Peeples) daughter Sheila (Isabel Ellison) to Gerald Croft (Greg Matthew Anderson), the son of a rival mill owner. Also present are Arthur’s wife, Sybil (Lia Mortensen), a prominent member of local society, and their son, Eric (Luke Daigle), who has problems his parents know nothing about.
Just as they’re drinking a toast, the doorbell rings and the maid (Maggie McCally) shows in a rather mysterious Inspector Goole (Nick Sandys). He announces that he is there to investigate the horrible suicide of a young woman. Though the family members express dismay, they all deny any involvement in the death or even knowing the victim.
One by one, Inspector Goole questions them, getting them to reveal their part in the unfortunate woman’s tragedy, a sequence of events that started with her dismissal from the mill for demonstrating in favor of higher wages and ended with her so desperate she saw no solution except to kill herself. But the heart of the matter isn’t just their culpability; it’s how they react when they acknowledge their behavior and its consequences.
Unlike Scrooge, the older people aren’t transformed and have little inclination to redeem themselves. Arthur, played to a T by Peeples, remains self-righteous and convinced he behaved appropriately in dismissing Ms. Smith (one of the names the woman used). He’s also increasingly indignant at Goole’s rude, harsh and insulting line of questioning, even as Sandys’ Inspector lets his intense but matter-of-fact style morph into angry outbursts of moral outrage, particularly towards Mortensen’s brittle Sybil, who insists she was just doing her duty even when the immense personal cost of her actions is staring her in the face.
The younger generation fares a little better. While Gerald arguably did the least harm to the dead woman, and Eric is shamed by his major role in her undoing, it is Sheila who is genuinely appalled by her insensitivity and changed by the experience.
When Gerald, having absented himself from the house after being questioned, returns and expresses suspicions about the Inspector’s authenticity, his methods and even whether there was a suicide, everyone except Sheila seizes on the seeming discrepancies to discredit their accuser, put the incident behind them and return to their old ways as if nothing had happened.
And that’s where Priestley leaves them — but with a final twist of the knife. It isn’t spectacular, as it was in that touring production, but it doesn’t really have to be, even if the projections could be somewhat stronger and clearer.
For the most part, the staging is as impeccable as the acting. Credit goes to scenic designer Alan Donahue, whose well-windowed set takes us right into an affluent British dining room circa 1912, and to costume designer Emily Waecker, whose way with the details is commendable.
On balance, “An Inspector Calls” will make you feel instructed rather than uplifted, but that’s not a bad thing, and if you’re a fan of “Downton Abbey,” it will have an air of familiarity.