'An Inspector Calls' is well worth calling on
Though written in the 1940s and set in the 1910s, An Inspector Calls seems to have struck a nerve with modern audiences. Contemporary economic struggles likely gave rise to the recent popularity of J.B. Priestley’s dining room detective drama among American theaters, such as Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma. Directed by Michael Baron, the play takes place in the home of the Birlings, an English family made wealthy by the mill industry. In the midst of a sumptuous dinner celebrating the engagement of Sheila Birling to Gerald Croft, a detective arrives to question the family about the suicide of Eva Smith, a working-class woman. Though at first the Birlings deny any relation to the poor dead girl, the Inspector’s questioning uncovers each family member’s secrets until he discovers who is to blame for Eva’s death. His discoveries shatter the Birling’s capitalist contentment and leave them reconsidering their responsibilities to, as modern Americans might say, the 99%.
The script arguably suffers from a lack of subtlety. Its goal—to vouch for the downtrodden poor and indict the ungenerous rich—tends to awkwardly declare itself through preachy, unnatural dialogue. In spite of this textual difficulty, Lyric’s production often achieved authentic emotional resonance. Helen Hedman’s visceral reactions to unfolding revelations humanized Sybil Birling, the initially supercilious matriarch. Her performance of Sybil’s speedy descent from self-assurance to shame proved particularly captivating. Matthew Alvin Brown also accomplished a powerful character arc by skillfully embodying Eric Birling’s increasing instability and ultimate desperation. With subtly commanding presence and careful inflection, Jonathan Beck Reed sustained the Inspector’s mysterious demeanor. Victoria Hines boldly engaged with the other performers in expressing Sheila Birling’s growing convictions. Paul Mitchell’s aristocratic demeanor made him believable as highborn Brit Gerald Croft, while Stephen Hilton’s less refined dialect clarified the humble beginnings that preceded Arthur Birling’s lucrative business career. While efficiently performing her duties in the background, Rachael Barry provided a face for the working class as Edna, the Birling’s maid, with nearly imperceptible yet significant interactions with other characters.
Kimberly Powers created a provocative visual representation of the play’s conflict through her set design. The creamy, lavish Birling home literally rests atop the sooty detritus of the poorer classes. Beside the house, small shabby chimneys are visible, while its foundations sit on bricks, tools, and—most poignantly—a pair of scuffed women’s boots that serve as a constant reminder of Eva Price’s fate. A rain effect highlighted characters’ pivotal realizations and, coupled with Weston Wilkerson’s lighting design, augmented the differences between the world within the Birling dining room and without. Director Michael Baron’s thoughtful blocking took advantage of these juxtaposed spaces, adding another layer of symbolism and avoiding the possible boredom of ninety minutes spent entirely within a dining room. Gorgeously constructed gowns and well-tailored suits (designed by Jeffrey Meek) emphasized the Birling family’s status and opulence.
Though its moral becomes tediously overt at times, An Inspector Calls thunders along with the exciting pace one looks forward to in a theatrical mystery. It’s a must-see for fans of stunning period spectacle and social critique.
“An Inspector Calls” is playing at Lyric on the Plaza, 1727 NW 16th St, Oklahoma City, through October 25. Curtain times are Tuesday – Thursday at 7:30, Friday at 8:00, and Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00. Purchase tickets at lyrictheatreokc.com or by calling (405) 524-9310.