Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall hosts the start of the production’s American tour, with the original creative team virtually intact. It was Ian MacNeil’s stunning set design, a Victorian manse on a misty cobblestone street that cracks open like a benighted egg, that gave — and gives — the production its distinctive visual allure. The mesmerizing varnish is applied to the tale of a police detective who descends on an upper-middle-class family in the Midlands to open an inquisition not only on a death, but also on an entire way of life.
“An Inspector Calls” is like an episode of “The Twilight Zone” wrapped in an Agatha Christie mystery. Time and place are fractured in the Brumley of Priestley’s imagination, as the allegedly cold, hard facts of a young woman’s suicide are laid out by Inspector Goole in the equally cold, hard cadences of fine Scottish actor Liam Brennan. As Goole weaves his tapestry of implication among five attendees at the 1912 engagement party of dewy deb Sheila Birling (Lianne Harvey) to stiff-backed Gerald Croft (Andrew Macklin), an even colder, harder reality comes to the fore.
The 2018 version still retains the production’s crackle, though contemporary set design and innovative approaches to the texts of rarely seen classics have caught up with “An Inspector Calls.” So the dazzle is not quite so blinding as it was 20 years ago, and the novelty of a play’s rebirth has worn off. But the drama, with its Pirandellian inventiveness and daggers to the heart of smug social superiority, remains an evening of many dark and twisting delights.
“So who is to blame?” Goole demands to know — a line that pretty much sums up the inspector’s whole line of inquiry. It isn’t a culprit he’s after, exactly, as much as a causality. The Birlings, presided over by a gruff, barking patriarch (Jeff Harmer) and wife (Christine Kavanagh) of multitudinous airs and pieties, are for Priestley, it seems, the distillation of all that is coarse and unholy in 20th century capitalism. The family’s disenfranchisement from decency is reinforced in Daldry’s staging by the addition of a crowd of silent onlookers, a working class chorus mute in condemnation. The Birlings’ aged housekeeper, Edna (Diana Payne-Myers), is another speechless witness; like a Beckett clown, she flits here and there, struggling to lift tea trays and drag chairs for the comfort of a heartless household.
The house itself is a veritable character, and a deft act of engineering. (And Stephen Warbeck’s nerve-tingling score gives it its own ominous theme song.) At the start of the evening, it’s sealed tight, and the audience — like the waifs playing in the street in front of it — eavesdrops on what seem the warm toasts and chatter of a happy gathering. It’s only after the walls of the house fold back to reveal the well-upholstered innards that the more sinister aspects of the Birlings’ callousness are teased out under Goole’s cross-examination. After the interrogations spill onto the street, forcing all of the Birlings out of their complacency, even the house will pitch a fit.
The touring production, which began as a revival in Britain, is uniformly well-cast, though the acoustic challenges of Harman Hall have not been adequately surmounted; some dialogue gets swallowed. Particularly good, however, are Harvey’s Sheila, the family member with the most highly developed conscience, and Kavanagh’s Mrs. Birling, she of the imperious stares and grand self-delusions.
It’s intriguing to think on what London audiences of the 1940s made of Priestley’s assault on the vanities and voids of compassion of the moneyed classes among them; “Downton Abbey,” this ain’t. For us, “An Inspector Calls” feels like a reminder of the timelessly entertaining possibilities of critiques of the less admirable qualities of the privileged, and even of appeals to our better angels.
An Inspector Calls, by J.B. Priestley. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Sets and costumes, Ian MacNeil; lighting, Rick Fisher; music, Stephen Warbeck; sound, Sebastian Frost. With Hamish Riddle. About 1 hour 45 minutes. $44-$118. Through Dec. 23 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. shakespearetheatre.org or 202-547-1122.