When Inspector Goole (James Noel Hoban) interrupts a small party at the upper-class Birling home, everyone is certain they have nothing to do with the horrible death he’s investigating. But Inspector Goole has ways of making people talk, and everyone in the Birling home, as it turns out, has something to say, in An Inspector Calls, the British writer’s J. B. Priestley’s classic 1946 mystery. Brian P. Allen directs a taut, stylish, gripping Good Theater production of this much-laureled thriller-cum-social-critique at the St. Lawrence Arts Center.
It’s the spring of 1912. In their drawing room of dark wood, deep blue, and heavy draperies, wealthy industrialist Arthur Birling (Tony Reilly) and his wife Sibyl (Amy Roche) are dressed in tails and beaded silk to celebrate the engagement of their daughter Sheila (Meredith Lamothe) to another, bluer-blood industrialist, Gerald Croft (Christopher Holt). The Birlings and Gerald seem like your typical entitled Brits. They toast, banter, and posture. Sheila, in silk and plum chiffon, bickers with her younger brother Eric (Thomas Ian Campbell), who’s getting goofy on port, while charming Gerald smiles politely at their regression. Perfectly poised Sibyl admonishes burly Arthur for talking business during a toast, and Arthur has just started speechifying about how a man should take care of himself, rather than believe the “cranks” who go around talking rubbish about an interconnected social fabric. And then the Inspector is announced, and the revelations begin.
In the role of this strange Inspector, Hoban is very still and very solid, as if inside his dark pinstriped suit, his body is as heavy and dense as clay. This physical solidity works to give him both bodily stubbornness and a sort of otherness, and there is also something interestingly odd, almost autistic, in his unblinking gaze and blunt, near gestureless speech. He starts in on the Birlings with an inscrutably neutral tone and blank expression, but soon (perhaps a bit too soon), we see his stiff-jawed sullenness, his disgust, and, eventually, his rage at the well-heeled Birlings.
As the Inspector turns his questions on one and then the next of them, the ensemble gives us much to gauge in the family’s reactions. Early after the Inspector arrives, Arthur is all superior swagger, as he throws around social connections that fail to impress, and Holt’s Gerald listens with an imperious smile, amused and a bit incredulous at the Inspector’s class breaches. But once Arthur is under the gun, his bluster turns defensive, and you can see a simple man’s fear in his eyes; Gerald, faced with his own past, grows raw with confusion and vulnerability, as if he no longer knows how to hold his face. Roche’s Sibyl proves the most unrelenting in the face of the Inspector; her gentile righteousness never wavers as behind her eyes, something cruel and disinterested seethes.
Priestley ultimately aligns the younger generation against the elder, and Lamothe’s graceful, reed-like Sheila has perhaps the most dynamic arc of the show. She starts off the perfectly spoiled rich girl, strident, trilling, impatient, and delighted with herself. But when confronted by the Inspector, her face and her entire frame seem to ache with her candor and dismay. Campbell’s Eric likewise poses a contrast to their parents’ posturing; red-faced and volatile, he hunches over, fumbles, contorts.
As the Birlings’ dark night of the soul wears on, Allen deftly paces their reveals, doing justice to Priestley’s deliciously plotted hairpin turns: Good Theater puts on a sharp and absorbing show. And Priestley’s script so elegantly subverts the mystery genre to his own ends that the result is the best of both worlds — both a succinct social treatise and a very satisfying thriller. Now is a fitting time of year for the thrills of An Inspector Calls, as we hover between Halloween and A Christmas Carol, and it’s an even more fitting time in the cultural moment for Priestley’s unambiguous social message: that no one, no matter their wealth or power, lives alone.
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