Must See Parable/Thriller @ ChicagoShakes

4 Stars out of 4

Rarely does a classic work of British theatre (it’s required reading for all UK students certificate of secondary education) hit on such a timely basis in America as the production of An Inspector Calls  by JB Priestley did at the Chicago Shakespeare opening last night.  J.B. Pritzkers state budget address had just urged us to take care of the vulnerable in society, and a police hoax about a false tragedy was unraveling over at the CPD—see the show to find out why these two current events make the play feel like it was ripped from the headlines!  Timeliness is not the only reason to see this National Theatre of Great Britain’s stunning work however. Chicagoans have a rare opportunity here to see a full on LIVE in the flesh British production complete with a mostly British cast without flying across the pond  and it is a beautiful , artfully crafted work, not to be missed. Director Stephen Daldry has and created a vision that will resonate in your mind, heart and eyes for quite a while.

The Yard Theatre at Navy Pier is at its expansive best with a massive velvet curtain fringed in gold.  Scruffy street children enter and peek beneath the curtain—these are post World War Two era urchins—the play was originally premiered in 1945 in Russia because London had so few theatres not blitzed into rubble when the show was penned , so this show collapses the time frames(another Priestley passion: time). The children turn on an ancient radio. Stephen Warbeck’s dramatic music commences and the curtain rises on a surrealistic cobbled street where we can see inside the town house perched above the gritty avenue.  The scene telegraphs class divide, and the sizes and perspectives and references to period are as disorienting as a fun house.  A shattered phone booth sits to one side. Ian MacNeil’s set design is Dr. Who meets The Twilight Zone.   A wealthy middle class family is inside the house celebrating the engagement of their daughter . This family is rising in society and they are hopeful.  These characters are from 1912, before the horrors of the first World War, but the traumas of the Victorian and Edwardian industrial revolution are evident with smoke and steam and crumbled infrastructure.  

Theodd little lit-from-within house will open like a dollhouse to reveal the dining room. The women retire to the drawing room: the men self congratulate. An inspector Goole arrives and wants to ask questions: he has come from the infirmary where an unfortunate girl has done herself in by drinking disinfectant, itself a metaphorical gesture for what will unfold.  I do not want to spoil the twists and turns the plot will take, but suffice to say this girl is connected to each of the characters in that dining room and each of them will bear some responsibility for her deciding her life is worthless after every societal institution has failed her.  The play is like a biblical parable, a story told to impart a moral lesson, but the visual stylishness and superb acting of this ensemble make it a rabbit hole you want to fall down. The show is billed as a thriller and it will twist and turn and have a surprise at the end. Liam Brennan’s Inspector is relentless at holding these privileged folk, and us, to task.  Christine Kavanagh’s Sybil Birling is implacable in her belief in her “duty” as a bastion against any  compassion. Jeff Harmer’s Arthur Birling is complex as he goes from unassailable priviledge to existentially threatened to relieved and then…. well there is that surprise ending.   It is the younger generation then as now, in the characters Sheila (Liane Harvey)and Eric (Hamish Riddle), that sees the ramifications of an upper class that removes itself from responsibility from it’s lofty actions and they see the dangers of ensconcing the status quo. They are transformed by the knowledge that actions have consequences.

There are so many moments that are remarkable in this one hour and 45 minute with no intermission but the one that keeps playing in my head is this shattering occasion when thedollhouse tilts and the dining room crashes, and then it restores itself: the wealthy pulling the ladder to hope and success up after themselves, leaving the crowd in the streets. Playwright JB Priestley was unabashedly socialist, someone Bernie Sanders and AOC would be comfortable having tea with, which is another connection this work has with our own time and nation. This play makes you think, feel and discuss, while being a stellar evening of entertainment.   

An Inspector Calls, is here for a very limited engagement ,only running at theChicago Shakespeare Theatre’s  Yard on Navy Pier until March 10th, so don’t hesitate to get there.For tickets and information go to www.ChicagoShakes.com  or call 312-596-5600.