J.B. Priestley's "An Inspector Calls" isn't your usual mystery-thriller, and director Stephen Daldry and designer Ian MacNeil have given it a magnificently unusual stage treatment.
When the curtain rises, it's raining -- pouring, actually -- on stage. Even more stunning is the small townhouse on stilts that is the central element of MacNeil's ingenious set. In the course of this fast-paced production -- which is launching its national tour at the Mechanic Theatre -- that house opens up like a hinged dollhouse, introducing us to its upper-class British inhabitants,
and eventually, like those inhabitants, spilling its guts and crumbling.
This technically and artistically innovative approach won a Tony Award for Daldry's Royal National Theatre production, and it is unstintingly reproduced for this touring version. But what's most impressive is the way these special effects illuminate Priestley's theatre noir script.
The plot concerns a police inspector who arrives at the home of the prosperous Birling family while they are celebrating their daughter's engagement to a member of the aristocracy. The inspector has come to question them about the suicide of a young working-class woman.
At first the victim doesn't appear to have had a connection to anyone in the house. But the inspector isn't a typical police investigator, and this isn't a typical whodunit. It was a suicide, after all, not a murder. So, the question of culpability isn't a matter of who. Instead, the inspector is determined to discover why this death happened and what it means. Priestley is preaching social responsibility -- pretty didactically in the inspector's final speech.
But except for a few passages like that speech, the production succeeds in showing instead of telling. And though MacNeil's set is the real star, most of the performers hold their own against it. This is especially true of the larger-than-life performances, particularly that of Susan Kellermann as imperious Mrs. Birling, who clearly runs the household and is the least troubled by the inspector's questions.
As her husband, Philip LeStrange is the British model of the self-made man, but he could stand to bring more bluster to his pomposity.
Though the members of the younger generation hold the possibility of future change, only two of them learn anything from the inspector's chilling visit. As the Birling's grown son, Harry Carnahan lends depth to a character who initially appears merely an inebriated twit; and Jane Fleiss, as the daughter, shows us a younger version of her mother, but with a major difference -- she has a conscience.
Unfortunately, this proves less true of her charming fiance, suavely played by David Andrew Macdonald.
As to the inspector, Sam Tsoutsouvas makes him relentless and pugnacious, but his performance fails to adequately convey the compelling nature of this truth-seeker.
The physical production is what takes your breath away, however, and one other element of it needs to be mentioned. Though the play takes place in 1912, designer MacNeil and director Daldry have added suggestions of a period closer to 1946, when it debuted.
These suggestions take the form of air raid sirens, props such as a beat-up radio, and most significantly, just over a dozen new non-speaking, 1940s-garbed characters, who serve primarily as onlookers from the future.
On the most obvious level, these interpolations are effective because Priestley was fascinated by theories of time, as the play's conclusion indicates. On a deeper level, the onlookers offer a palpable representation, not merely of time repeating itself, but also of the theme of responsibility for the future.
In other words, Daldry and MacNeil have laid a pretty heavy concept on "An Inspector Calls." But it grows directly out of the play.
The result heightens a preachy text that proves it can not only bear the weight, but is strengthened by it.
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 29
Call: (410) 625-1400