An Inspector Calls

by Clinton Campbell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday March 18, 2019

A scene from the touring production of "An Inspector Calls" at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre through March 24.
A scene from the touring production of "An Inspector Calls" at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre through March 24.  

What if something you say or do today starts a series of events that eventually leads to tragedy? Does it matter if you know those involved? Ultimately, are you responsible for the results of your actions toward those around you?

These are the central questions in J.B. Priestley's classic thriller/morality play, "An Inspector Calls" and the revival of Stephen Daldry's iconic Tony award-winning 1992 production currently playing at ArtsEmerson.

Set in the fictional English town of Brumley just before the First World War, the story centers around the Birlings, a family of upper-class industrialists. One evening they are celebrating the engagement of the daughter (Shiela) when a police inspector (Goole) arrives at their door to investigate the recent death of a young working-class woman....and their lives begin to unravel.

Serving as Everyman, Inspector Goole's questioning gradually strips away the faade of respectability that each Birling wears and uncovers the core vice that drives them (pride, greed, envy, lust, sloth). The result is a damning rebuke of Victorian society and class structure.

But have things really changed since the rise of Industrialization? Mr. Daldry's staging emphasizes the timeless nature of the plot by framing a story that is set just before World War One during the air raids of World War Two. But in reality, it could just as easily be framed during any of our current wars.

He has also juxtaposed all of the base and ugly human actions that are revealed against an absolutely stunning visual and auditory backdrop. Ian MacNeil's incredible set is brought back for the revival - a Victorian dollhouse perched atop of a bomb crater. Combined with Rick Fisher's lighting and Stephen Warbeck's music and the result is cinematic in its scope.

Enigmatic and dry-witted, Liam Brennan is fantastic as the mysterious Inspector Goole. He is a man on a mission, and while he claims to simply be there to collect facts, there is an undercurrent of judgment in his performance. You are constantly forced to question his agenda and just how much he does know.

The performances of the morally bankrupt Birlings are largely what drives the tension of the story as their infighting causes them to continually reveal more than they want. In many ways, while written in the 1940s, this show is not very different from watching any of the myriad legal procedurals that dominate much of modern television.

Jeff Harmer as the domineering patriarch (Arthur), Christine Kavanagh as the snobbish and class-obsessed matriarch (Sylvia), and Andrew Macklin as the self-entitled soon to be son-in-law (Croft) represent those willing to defend the social hierarchy and their position in it at any cost. While the somewhat dim and pampered adult children (Sheila and Eric), portrayed by Lianne Harvey and Hamish Riddle, provide the viewpoint of a younger generation willing to consider that all is not as it seems.

And in a role of few lines, but ever-present and watching, Diana Payne-Myers reprises her role as the housekeeper Edna — whom Ms. Payne-Myers has been performing since the 1990s. Invisible to the upper-class Birlings, she is a reminder that the less fortunate are always aware.

In an era of the unprecedented economic divide, as well as online bigotry, hate, and cyber-bullying, a play written over 50 years ago that asks us to consider our treatment of our fellow humans is as fresh and urgent as if it was written yesterday.

"An Inspector Calls" continues through March 24 at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the ArtsEmerson website.