Chicago Theatre Review
Mystery Most Foul
An Inspector Calls
Following an elegant family dinner at Arthur and Sybil Birling’s comfortable home in northern England, the arrival of a mysterious man is announced. He claims to be police Inspector Goole who inexplicably shares with them the sad news that Eva Smith, a young working-class woman, has tragically committed suicide. No one at the family gathering, including young Gerald Croft, who has just officially proposed to Arthur’s daughter Sheila, nor Arthur’s son Eric, recognize the young woman’s name, and begs the question: why is the inspector involving this family in the unfortunate incident?
As the evening progresses more and more information is confessed by each family member, increasing the horror of the girl’s death. However, as with any mystery, the joy of this production is in discovering how each “innocent” suspect reveals his or her implication in the death. Then there’s the question, which remains long after the final curtain, of who is Inspector Goole? His name might imply that he’s a ghost of some sort. He also might be someone personally connected with the dead girl, or he might be a manifestation of the family’s collective conscience. Whomever Goole is, his ability to draw information from this self-entitled family and to shame them into understanding that people’s actions are not isolated is the message. Whether good or bad, everything we do or say effects others, a theme found in several holiday productions, like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol.” No man is an island and everyone bares responsibility for his fellow man are the humanitarian themes found in J. B. Priestly’s theatrical mid-20th century classic.
Alan Donahue’s tastefully sparse Edwardian dining room, around which the audience observes the evening’s proceedings, offers an upstage expanse of tiny paned glass windows through which period photographs of working class employees and their environs appear at key moments. Michael Rourke’s lighting design not only washes the scene in a mysterious shadowing, but finely focuses our attention on each character’s confession as the surrounding area darkens leaving only the character soliloquizing bathed in a revealing glow. David Darlow’s production is expertly paced, leading his actors and directly the audience’s attention where needed.
Darlow has cast his production with talented professionals, each of whom crafts a finely-layered character who Goole peels like an onion. Inspector Goole is played with steely calm, precision and determination by Producing Artistic Director Nick Sandys. While interrogating these affluent one-percenters, he commands everyone’s attention and respect. Roderick Peeples‘ Arthur Birling perfectly inhabits this Edwardian patriarch with his staunch resolve. Lia Mortensen, every inch the lady of the house, eventually rises up like the tiger she is as his wife, Sybil. So terrific in this company’s recent production of “Northanger Abbey,” Greg Matthew Anderson is all business, calm and control, a younger generation version of his father-in-law. Luke Daigle’s party boy Eric and lovely Isabel Ellison as his sister Sheila (and the playwright’s voice) are the only members of the family who seem to learn anything from the tragedy; the rest of the group absolve themselves from all blame…that is, until the final moments when an unexpected twist occurs.
While most theatre companies are focusing on typical holiday fare at this time of year, Remy Bumppo has chosen an alternative to Scrooge and George Bailey that offers a similar message buried within a delectable period mystery. Although referred to as a classic of drawing room theatre, Priestly’s best-known work is a superbly entertaining indictment of society’s hypercritical ways, presented with wit, taste and artistry by one of Chicago’s finest theatres.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented Dec. 9-22 by Remy Bumppo in the Upstairs Mainstage space at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-404-7336 or by visiting their website at www.remybumppo.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.