The chill in the air at Laurel Mill Playhouse has little to do with the change of season as the theater presents the 20th-century drawing room thriller, “An Inspector Calls,” by British dramatist J. P. Priestley (1894-1984).
The controversial playwright is recognized for introducing socialist political commentary and the use of time slips as plot devices in his works. Of the more than 50 plays Priestley penned, this show — a fierce critique of Victorian high society — is considered his best known.
Produced first in Russia in 1945 and then in the United Kingdom, the show was adapted to film and for BBC television and radio. English director Stephen Daldry’s revival of the play almost 50 years later snagged numerous awards across the globe.
Produced here by Maureen Rogers and expertly directed by Ilene Chalmers, with savvy stage management by Lori Bruun, the drama lands on the Playhouse stage as fresh and relevant today as it was in the 1940s.
Designed by Chalmers and her husband, David, the richly-appointed set is outstanding in form and function. Black wall flats and snowy white accents, touches of classical wall art and a golden chandelier work in harmony with gorgeous period costumes assembled by Linda Swann.
Lovely hair, makeup, lighting (designed by the Chalmers) and sound (designed by Fred Nelson) sync seamlessly into the illusion of a wealthy family dressed to the nines and comfortably situated in their drawing room in industrial Northern England, 1912.
Chalmers has assembled and directed a fine and finely-tuned cast — Jeff Dunne is Arthur Birling, a despotic mill owner aspiring to knighthood; Sam David his opinionated wife, Sybil; Kyle Kelly, their tormented and drunkard son, Eric; and JilliAnne McCarty, their pampered daughter, Sheila.
Rounding out the mid-sized ensemble are Matt Leyendecker as Sheila’s wealthy fiancé, Gerald; Tracy Dye as the servant girl, Edna; and Tom Piccin as the mysterious Inspector Goole.
“An Inspector Calls” opens to the Birling family’s quiet celebration of the engagement of Sheila Birling to Gerald Croft, the son of her father’s competitor. A toast is made to the happy couple and the engagement ring is bestowed.
Priestley’s dialogue immediately begins foreshadowing subplots to come. For instance, Sheila (McCarty) quips that Gerald (Leyendecker) ignored her most of the previous summer — pay close attention to seemingly idle conversation.
As Birling, Dunne comments that he hopes the two families will work together for “lower costs and higher prices.”
And satirically, the show is set two years before the start of World War 1, he insists, as a “hard-headed businessman,” that the Germans don’t want war and that “capital versus labor agitations” will be forgotten in 20–30 years time.
Enter Piccin as the steely Inspector and the tone shifts. Looking a bit James Bond-like when he first enters, Piccin never bats an eye as he intimidates and grills each character separately about their culpability in events leading to a young, pregnant working-class woman’s horrible suicide.
Although these interrogations provide fertile ground for some awesome acting by all, the plot becomes a bit predictable by the end of act two. This is easily forgiven and forgotten, however, because act three is a doozy.
Chalmers obviously took great care in directing “An Inspector Calls” at Laurel Mill Playhouse. From charming accents coached by special consultant Richard Atha-Nicholls, to a cast full of standout performers, her classy show shines.
As the Birling patriarch, Dunne exudes pompous single-mindedness and blustering authority. Leyendecker (Gerald) creates wonderful chemistry with McCarty (Sheila), the spoiled debutante with a temper who becomes a character we can love by play’s end.
David’s delightful facial expressions and sure-footed performance as Sybil never falter. And as Edna — who had fewer lines than the other actors — Dye commands a compelling presence that stokes the mounting tension.
Kelley, as Eric, delivers a genuine, complex character long before he ever opens his mouth; he and McCarty create great chemistry as squabbling siblings.
And as the title character, Piccin doles out anger and compassion with excellent technique, keeping his identity close to the vest and easily living up to the name, “Goole.”
"An Inspector Calls" continues weekends through Oct. 1, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m., at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St. Tickets are $20. Students ages 16-18, active duty military and seniors 65 and over pay $15. Buy tickets online at laurelmillplayhouse.org