“An Inspector Calls,” now playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through March 10, is a rare treat for area theatergoers. It’s a thriller, mystery and social commentary produced by an acclaimed British theater company and directed by an acclaimed film, television and stage director.
And while it’s not a traditional murder mystery – we’re told early on that a young woman has committed suicide – audience members are on the edge of their seats throughout the performance, wondering where the investigation by the title character will take us next.
British dramatist J.B. Priestley’s play, which was produced for the first time in 1945, is directed by Stephen Daldry whose career has ranged from the Netflix series “The Crown” to Oscar-nominated movies like “The Hours” and “Billy Elliot” to Tony Award-winning productions of “Billy Elliot the Musical” and “An Inspector Calls.” Daldry’s 1992 revival of this play was widely acclaimed in England, and it’s that National Theatre of Great Britain staging that is on display at Navy Pier.
In “An Inspector Calls,” the year is 1912. The place is a fictional English town, Brumley. Before the curtains open, air raid sirens and bombing sounds jar the audience, and when the curtains part, that sense of uneasiness continues with eerie music, as well as thick smoke obscuring a very unusual set designed by Ian MacNeil.
That’s because the home of a wealthy businessman and former lord mayor of Brumley, Arthur Birling (Jeff Harmer), his society wife, Sybil (Christine Kavanagh), and their 20-something children, Sheila (Lianne Harvey) and Eric (Hamish Riddle), is approximately five or six feet above the stage. Audience members can only partially see the characters inside. The family is celebrating the engagement of Sheila and Gerald Croft (Andrew Macklin), the possible merger of Birling and Croft businesses and the quietly shared possibility of a future knighthood for Arthur. Into this high society comes Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan), whose investigation of the suicide of a young woman, Eva Smith, earlier that day at the local infirmary has led him to the Birling home. As the front of the house structure folds back to fully expose Croft and the Birlings, and a set of stairs are positioned next to the home, Goole is determined to “open up” the truth and bring these individuals “down to earth.”
But what could a suicide have to do with this family? Why is this inspector, who just recently transferred to Brumley, disrupting such a happy gathering when none of them could have anything to do with Eva drinking strong disinfectant? “A girl died tonight!” Goole yells, taking the case very personally and forcing Gerald and the Birlings to do the same.
To share any more of the plot would spoil a special night at the theater. The cast is outstanding (Harvey and Riddle are especially good as their characters realistically change throughout the events of the play), the set is a character in and of itself, and you’ll be glad there’s no intermission to interrupt the suspenseful flow of this story.
The only suggestion I would make is that more of an effort be made – such as the use of signs or reminders from ushers as they’re seating patrons – to get audience members to silence their phones. Because the play inserts us into the audio environment of a world soon to be at war, it starts without a formal silence-your-devices announcement. Whenever a phone rang in the middle of a tense scene, it took me out of the 1912 story and back to 2019.
That quibble aside, this is an impressive drama for adults with a message about the effect we can have on each other’s lives. It’s definitely worth the call to see “An Inspector Calls.”
• Paul Lockwood is a past president of TownSquare Players (TSP) and an occasional community theater actor, appearing in over 30 plays, musicals, and revues since he and his wife moved to Woodstock in 2001. Recent shows include “42nd Street,” “Once Upon a Mattress,” “On Golden Pond” and “9 to 5: The Musical.”