J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls opens on a family at a dinner party, coat tails and white bowties in abundance. Everyone is snooty, and often, characters retire to the drawing room. I have no idea what a drawing room is. And unless you were choking on mustard gas in the trenches in the Great War, you probably don’t either.
2nd Story’s production of An Inspector Calls is a worthy examination of our relationships and our interconnectedness with society. The patriarch of the Birling family, Arthur (Tom Roberts), whose character falls somewhere between Thurston Howell, III and J.P. Morgan, asserts that he “Cannot let the Upton Sinclairs do all the talking … a man must mind his own business.” This isolationist attitude was popular in Victorian-era America. The wealthy were content and complacent and this script provides some heavy conflict to completely ruin that attitude for the Birling family.
As the Birling dinner affair winds down, Inspector Goole (Vince Petronio) comes to the estate and begins an unwelcome inquisition. A working class girl named Eva Smith committed suicide, and it seems each Birling is connected. As the Inspector, Petronio almost comes off like a supervillain. His psychological probing borders on devious, and he casts the weight of villainy onto each person he interrogates. Petronio is all at once smooth, animated, commanding, and subdued.
The dinner party the Inspector interrupts is the celebration of Sheila Birling’s (Laura Sorensen) engagement to Gerald Croft (Tim White). It’s revealed that Sheila got Eva Smith fired from her job because Eva laughed when Sheila was too fat to fit into a dress, and Gerald had an affair with Eva while she was under an alias. Gerald is initially a pretty unremarkable character. He has the kind of lifelong affluence that results in a Romney-esque personality of room-temperature oatmeal. But when White recounts the evening he first met Eva, he is engaging and honest, and you are left helpless but to immerse yourself in the film reel of memories that follows.
Sybil Birling (Joan Batting) is kind of like Cruella de Vil with some Nurse Ratched peppered in. She refuses to take responsibility for anything, and Batting plays her with a coldness that is almost decadent. As black sheep/slacker son Eric, Jeff Church offers great contrast to the uptight snobs of the Birling family. From his first entrance, he is slouching and completely disinterested in the ongoings of family life. Eric has the most tragic connection to Eva Smith, but you are unaware of the humanity of his character until the connection is revealed. I always appreciate characters who are more than what they seem; and moreover, actors who recognize that quality.
Ultimately, each family member is made to realize that their position of privilege has somehow negatively impacted the world, if only epitomized in Eva Smith. The Inspector leaves as mysteriously as he came, leaving the Birlings in wonder.
An Inspector Calls questions responsibility and truth. Can we really take credit for all we have? Are we worthy of those we love? Do we learn from our failures, or are we doomed to repeat them? Even fabricated circumstances can bring about a realization of profound truth.
Performances will run through December 2 at the 2nd Story Theatre in Warren. For ticket information, call 401-253-9300 or visit www.2ndstorytheatre.com.