An Inspector Calls, currently being staged by the Shakespeare Theater Company, is a tragic-comic mix of Agatha Christie meets Michael Moore, skewering classism and privilege in the cloak of a classic drawing room whodunit. Director Stephen Daldry’s much-admired revival has won multiple Tony, Olivier, and Drama Desk Awards, and offers the audience an unfurling thriller of twists, turns, and unexpected revelations.
The blithely affluent Birling family dines sumptuously, celebrating the engagement of Gerald Croft (Andrew Macklin) and Sheila Birling (Lianne Harvey), a union as welcome for its upward mobility as its felicity, while hungry ruffians scuttle in the mansion’s shadows. All are interrupted by police inspector Goole (Liam Brennan), come to query the household regarding a young woman’s suicide. At first glance, the working class victim seems unlikely to have intersected with the wealthy Birling family, but as the mysterious Goole probes the façade of societal respectability, he flays open a tangled mesh of callous sins. Bellicose patriarch Arthur Birling (Jeff Harmer); vulgar, entitled mother Sybil Birling (Christine Kavanagh); profligate son Eric Birling (Hamish Riddle); and shallow daughter Sheila Birling are each complicit, each a stereotype of the period. Whether they can be shaken from their complacency to moral culpability is the play’s evocative question.
Ian MacNeill’s set and costumes are sumptuous, a visually striking Hitchcockian fantasy, a beautiful yet sinister Edwardian dollhouse perched above a bleak industrial street that unfolds along with the play’s revelations. The scene reeks of opulent entitlement, yet with a fog curling at the edges like a harbinger of future collapse. It could be 1912, 1945, or today in costume dress. While hamhandedly blunt in its themes, the ominous message of J.B. Priestly’s 1945 play – first revived by Daldry in 1992 – is equally relevant today. Daldry’s bold direction breaks with the drawing room period piece construct to spotlight the morality play’s themes of suffering, inequality, and interconnectedness by encircling the gilded manse with impoverished, observant shadows and punching through the fourth wall to directly, and searingly address the audience.
An Inspector Calls is a timeless thriller with a social conscience. For all its clumpy, lumpy, and hyperbolic moments, there’s no doubt the onstage dialogue will spark critical conversation about inequity and moral responsibility.
An Inspector Calls is playing at The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sydney Harman Hall (610 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004) through December 23, 2018. Running time: approximately one hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission. For information or tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or click here.
*Photos credit Mark Douet