An Inspector Calls, by J. B. Priestley. Directed by Patrick White.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Carmen Lookshire (on ladder) Angelique Powell (in front) Kim Wafer (on couch) and the company; rehearsal photo: provided
"We don’t live alone. We are members of one body.
We are responsible for each other."
Suicide forms the foreground for J. B. Priestley's 1945 play about social attitudes and, sub rosa, political landscapes. It seems that when an inspector calls the layers of deceit and guilt and attitude are about to be stripped away revealing the base truths beneath.The Inspector seems to imply that if men and women continue to behave callously to one another in the industrialized countries of the West, then those countries, as entities, will “commit suicide.” In Patrick White's edition of the play, there are distinct levels that need to be stripped away in order to reveal this truth. He has set the play in a theater in a large American city, late 1945.
The company, entirely made up of African-American actors, post world war II types, are preparing to perform this play which has been reset in the turn of the century, world war I style except for the casting. The inspector of the title has been cast with a woman, a powerful, vocally smart woman. She wears her maroon culottes as though they were pants and she performs in as masculine a manner as possible, but she is a woman for all that and clearly makes that obvious. In Priestly's play it is the women who reveal things, so for the essentially male character to be portrayed by a woman makes a lot of sense. The inspector is the one who rips away the layers to get at the true story of the suicide of Evey, a young, pregnant woman. In doing so he/she rips away the disguises assumed by the guilty parties revealing honest underpinnings and exposing the personal corruption of those who would maintain through sham the unholy trinity of greed, self-protection, and class image.
This is a very curious production. Giving a black cast this material is asking them to take on the traditional angst of a white world defending its right to be wrong. The transition, at the Schenectady Civic Players converted theater (from a religious center) is added on to by the curious coincidence of the play's universal themes. A generally fine company plays out Priestley's subliminal message while dramatically projecting the story, the story, the story. . . and what lies beneath.
The socially impeccable Birlings, all four of them, have interacted with the suicide and so has Sheila Birling's fiance, Gerald Croft. Mr. Birling fired the girl for trying to upgrade the situation for herself and her compatriots. Sheila, his daughter, had her fired for "looking at her" in a store where she worked, maligning her character. Eric Birling had an affair with the girl and abandoned her when she got pregnant and Gerald Croft also had an affair with her and abandoned her for political reasons. When the pregnant girl appealed to a society group of matrons for help, Mrs. Birling condemned her for being who she was and refused her any aid. As the layers of guilt are exposed and truths emerge the inspector, whose last name is Goole, finally gets at the core of the problem. This barebones look does not even approach the intricacies of the stories involved and that's what makes the play so fascinating.
Evey, also known as Daisy, is played here by Carmen Lookshire who sings beautifully, wanders through the plot with an aimless innocence that masks her own truths. Her manner, in a lovely 1940s cocktail dress, singing lovely songs about love and remorse, is one of charm and personality that is good enough for the local bar, but never quite enough to inspire a good nightclub appearance. Lookshire provides just the right amount of pathos to keep the play an emotional challenge.
Kim Wafer knows how to play aloof and in the second act she pulls out the stops as Mrs. Birling being questioned. She maneuvers her shawl, her arms, her head and her voice into the clearest picture of maleficent superiority. This is a masterful performance of a role keyed to be unpleasant at best, and reprehensible at the worst. Wafer manages both professionally.
The men are somewhat less distinct. Emmet Ferris gives Mr. Birling an attitude that works for the character. His self-righteous stuffiness is evident but not intrusive. As his son, Eric, Marquis Heath does a nice job of hysterical drunkenness, but loses sympathy when his part in Evey's downfall is revealed. JR Richards is just fine as Gerald, but he is more an ensemble player than he is a forthright major character.
As Sheila Birling, Josie Smith tends to over-react at times making the play within the play more about the acting than about the role. She isn't bad, but she is definitely caught in that middle spot between the play we're watching and they play her character is rehearsing back in 1945.
The Inspector is played by Angelique Powell who does a lovely job of building the intensity of her role from the quiet place of a caller who has a message and is seeking an answer to that of a crusader saving the holy land from the saracens. In the final scenes her intensity is almost overwhelming. At times it felt like she was doing too much, pushing too hard, but the stories her character unveils and the suicidal truths she uncovers demand a higher level of intensity and energy.
Beth Ruman's costumes run the gamut from sheer beauty to cotton-field baggy. The time of the play is unclear from the women's clothing which spans the first half of the century implying that this is a rehearsal of the play, while Mr. Birling seems to be in WWII army uniform, so I guess I should say it was innovative and successful. No one is credited with the set, so it must lie with the director. The lighting by Nick Nealon, however, weakened the show a bit, missing so many possible beats to create and highlight mood and attitude and leaving the distinct impression that this rehearsal we watch unfolding hasn't yet reached the technical stage. There are times when ignoring the premise of the presentation and adding to a show's impact should be considered.
Patrick White must be credited with creating this two-act realization of Priestley's three-act play. The work is not an easy one and he has pulled off the multi-level concept pretty well and worked with many of his actors to create believable and difficult characters. This is very good work on a very difficult play. Adding additional levels keeps our interest alive, especially when suicide seems to be the best answer available to a people tortured by an insecure government in a world situation that daily threatens anhilation.
In Schenectady for a short run, An Inspector Calls is opening eyes and touching minds. And for just over two hours, taking us away from our own dangerous era as an older one, or two, illuminate our situation with drama and a laugh or two.
An Inspector Calls plays at Schenectady Civic Playhouse, 12 South Church Street, Schenectady, NY through February 4. For information and tickets go to www.civicplayers.org or call 518-382-2081.