An Inspector Calls
A wealthy family's celebratory dinner is thrown into disarray in 2nd Story Theatre's brilliant, sophisticated production of J.B. Priestley's spine-tingling mystery, "An Inspector Calls," now playing in the Courtroom of the Bristol Statehouse.
From the moment they appear, clad in formal evening wear, gathered in a lush dining room circa early twentieth century décor, it is apparent the Birlings are card-carrying members of high society.
Industrialist and family patriarch, Arthur Birling (Tom Roberts), seated at the head of the table, is joined by his willful wife, Sybil (Joan Batting), and their children, the outspoken and hard-drinking son, Eric (Jeff Church), and pristine daughter, Sheila (Laura Sorensen). Also present is Sheila's fiancé, Gerald Croft (Tim White), who happens to be the son of one of Arthur's fiercest competitors.
The gentlemen and ladies are engaged in a polite discussion of world events, class structure and individual responsibility, when a surprise guest enters their home. Upon arrival, Inspector Goole (Vince Petronio) puts a damper on the evening's festivities with tragic news. Eva Smith, a young woman who used to work at Arthur's factory, has taken her own life. Once Goole begins to question him about his former employee, it comes to light that she may have been acquainted with each member of the Birling household, as well as Mr. Croft.
Although the inspector never actually accuses anyone of being singlehandedly responsible for Eva's suicide, his probing inquiries arouse suspicion among the family members, who start to point fingers -- sometimes unwittingly -- at each other. To say any more would spoil the fun and ensuing suspense.
While there is no culprit who pulled the trigger, so to speak, the emerging details of the dead woman's actions and their aftereffects are classic whodunit territory, which keeps the audience hanging on the edge of its seat throughout every moment of the drama's tight 75-minute running time. Courtesy of Ed Shea's precise direction, the cast moves about the stage gracefully, albeit with a pointed uneasiness, in which their facial expressions alone speak volumes.
Priestley, an English novelist and playwright, served in WWI and came from a working class family, so when "An Inspector Calls" premiered in 1945 just as WWII was coming to an end, its political undertone ("We don't live alone," as profoundly professed by Inspector Goole), is especially apparent and poignant.
Furthermore, as events transpire, the varied reaction between the older and younger Birlings infers a distinct value set, indicative of their own generation. But any underlying messages are supplemental to what stands alone as an intriguing, highly entertaining mystery.
Roberts is sublime as Arthur, the head of household whose harried temperament fails to shield his seemingly stoic disposition, and Batting's superb portrayal as the unwavering Sybil proves that her character's fixed intentions are on a par with her husband's.
Sorensen's performance as Sheila, arguably the kindest member of this ruffled bunch, is best described as serene, while White is equally charming as Croft, her dashing counterpart determined not to fall victim to the inspector's tribunal. Church, whose previous work has shown he has a knack for the irritable, once again impresses as Eric.
In the end, the show belongs to Petronio, whose inquisitive, puppet master-like portrayal of Inspector Goole demands the undivided attention of those on stage, and more importantly, the audience. Goole's carefully constructed speech pattern, coupled with the actor's understated manner, creates a sense of constraint and tension that is particularly effective, and perhaps most unsettling, his words are even funny, on occasion.
"An Inspector Calls" is compelling, intelligent theater that is first and foremost a play about family drama --something we're all likely to experience this forthcoming holiday season.
"An Inspector Calls" continues through December 2nd at The Courtroom of the Bristol Statehouse, 240 High Street, Bristol, RI. For info or tickets, call 401-247-4200 or visit 2nd Story Theatre's website.