J. B. Priestley's multi-layered play "An Inspector Calls" held up a mirror to post-World War II society in Britain. Everyman Theatre's taut revival holds up a mirror to us.
Set in an English industrial city in the spring of 1912, this ostensible detective story involves the well-off Birling family and the night a celebratory gathering in their dining room was interrupted by the arrival of a police inspector with the singular name of Goole.
The visitor wants answers from the Birling parents, their two children and a prospective son-in-law regarding the gruesome death of a young woman. Bit by bit, he uncovers links. And the last thing the people in that room want to discuss is linkage -- unless it is between the daughter in the family and her well-connected fiance.
"We don't live alone," the Inspector says when his work is done. "We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish." (Priestley could have titled his work "An Inspector Preaches.")
The Everyman production, directed with a keen appreciation for atmosphere, timing and tension by Noah Himmelstein, deftly underlines this issue of civic and personal responsibility, which weaves continually through the plot.
Dominating Timothy R. Mackabee's sleek set design are subtly reflective walls that surround the stage and also extend out into the house. Without overdoing it, those walls play a major role in the proceedings.
"An Inspector Calls" is all about characters being forced to recognize themselves for what they really are, and in this staging, those characters end up literally seeing themselves. And so do people in the audience. By connecting performers and onlookers alike, the production becomes all the more, well, revelatory.
Everyman has assembled a sturdy, closely-knit cast that includes several actors making their company debuts. One of them, Chris Genebach, does particularly commanding work as Goole.
He takes over the stage with terrific skill from the moment he arrives and holds it tightly until his parting shot. Everything about Genebach's portrayal rings true, in sound and gesture. (Note the subtle move this Inspector makes when a maid is clearing some dinner things from the table, a move that speaks volumes about another strong undercurrent in the play -- class.)
Bruce Randolph Nelson brings his customary skill to the role of Arthur Birling, self-described "hard-headed, practical man of business" whose faith in industrial progress includes an "absolutely unsinkable" ocean liner leaving soon for New York on its maiden voyage.
Birling's equally firm belief in maximizing profits and minimizing labor costs strikes a distinctly contemporary chord. That a crucial labor matter discussed in the play has to do with women seeking higher wages makes that chord clang all the louder.
Speaking of relevance, when our world is witnessing the plight of hapless refugees daily (a sight Priestley would have been all too familiar with when he wrote the play in 1945), there's something freshly chilling about this Birling fellow. His dismissal of the "cranks" who harp about how "everybody has to look after everybody else" is squirm-inducing.
The reliable Deborah Hazlett captures the essence of Birling's so-self-sure spouse; this actress knows just how to give a disdainful glance and gets memorable opportunities here.
Josh Adams deftly conveys the fragile state of the Birlings' son, Eric, well before the inspector's visit unleashes the full extent of the young man's inner torment. And Sophie Hinderberger offers a vibrant performance as daughter Sheila, who brings to the table something the others have little taste for -- a conscience. (The actress may play the sensitive side of the character a little too well; this Sheila doesn't seem capable of ever behaving in a dastardly manner toward anyone.)
Jamison Foreman rounds out the cast in vibrant, persuasive fashion as Sheila's fiance, Gerald Croft.
In addition to the effective set, finely lit by Jay A. Herzog, the production gains much from David Burdick's typically impeccable costume design. (I wonder, though, about some of the footwear. Arthur Birling might not be to the manor born, but would he really wear such dead common shoes with white tie and tails?)
Priestly's clever mesh of mystery and morals in "An Inspector Calls" has its heavy-handed moments, its easily detected contrivances. But it still works awfully well as theater and thought-provoker.
Midway through the unsettling interrogation by the Inspector, Sheila says to Gerald: "You and I aren't the same people who sat down to dinner here." Everyman's taut staging makes a valuable effort to ensure that the people who sit down to a play won't be entirely the same afterward, either.