An Inspector Calls
Presented by Circle Players
Through Nov. 7
Johnson Theater, TPAC
For tickets, call 255-ARTS
Circle Players is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a repeat performance of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. The play is a fine choice for the occasionit’s a revival from the company’s very first season in 1949.
Winner of the 1994 Tony Award for Best Revival, An Inspector Calls shoves up front and in your face all the stereotypes of the English drawing room murder mystery. The port decanter is placed just so on its silver tray, the fern spills over its pot, fringed pillows are tossed at random onto the overstuffed chairs, and the all-too-repressed socialites are dressed in evening clothes. So convincing is Anne Willingham’s set design that Inspector Goole, with his telltale unfashionable gray patent leather shoes, looks totally out of place the moment he steps onstage.
The play’s action hinges on the investigation of a dead body, an apparent suicide. The inspector calls on the family and interviews them one by one. At that point, all resemblance to Agatha Christie ends. True, the playwright slowly explores the relationships between each family member, but as layer after layer is peeled away, Priestly shows his real concern: to demonstrate that “we are responsible for each other.” The play ends not with the discovery of a lone murderer but rather an entire family of violators; everyone is deemed responsible for the death of the unmarried, pregnant girl whose life intertwined with theirs.
Priestly deftly shifts from the traditional murder mystery into what can only be called a morality tale in whodunit guise. Written in the 1940s, when thoughtful people of all nations were sifting through their own personal responsibility for the Holocaust, this drama still speaks to moral choices of the ’90s. Victims today might differ, but the story remains similar, whether it takes place in Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, or urban America.
Krys Collins, as Sheila Birling, was delightfully girlish and flirty, swept up in the giddy emotions of her newly announced engagement. But she just as aptly conveyed nuances of impatience and disgust with the other characters’ rationalizations after she realizes her own role in the tragedy. Sue McCormick, as Sheila’s mother Sybil Birling, was something else, playing the role of a selfish, bigoted bitch to the hilt. Every frown, every sideways glance, every gesture of protest was calculated to demonstrate how magnanimous she considered herself to be and how truly insufferable everyone else was.
The father, played by Val Perkins, was suitably stuffy as he blustered about, boasting of his status as a self-made man. John Devine, as Sheila’s fiancé, portrayed a character with complex emotional layers. He could shift with ease from one self-serving opinion to another and yet he allowed real sorrow to seep through his defenses when told of the pregnant girl’s death. Daniel Payne was not altogether convincing in the role of the alcoholic son because he did not establish a cohesive character. At times belligerent, at times sullen, at times sensitive, but mostly withdrawn, Payne did not convey insight into why the son was so fragmented and emotionally immature. Thomas Ward, back in Nashville after an apprenticeship with the Louisville Actors’ Theatre, played the title role of Inspector Goole with great confidence and control.
An Inspector Calls is an excellent vehicle for Circle Players because it offers members of the cast the opportunity to be thoughtful, passionate, and all too human. Actors and technical crew alike prove they’re fully up to the challenge. Fifty years later, the drama remains both topical and potent, particularly in the way that J.B. Priestley addresses the age-old question, “Who is my neighbor?”
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