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An Inspector Calls may possibly be the most entertaining play to grace the D.C. scene this fall. The National Theatre’s production of J.B. Priestley’s social realist play, running at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, is, perhaps surprisingly, suited to our times, and its interrogation of class structures and illustration of self-deception amongst the well-to-do is resonant in our age of income inequality.
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The action takes place in Edwardian England, opening with a dinner party to celebrate the engagement of Sheila Birling (Lianne Harvey) and Gerald Croft (Andrew Macklin) and the consequent business alliance of the Birling and Croft industrial concerns. Sheila’s father, Mr. Birling (Jeff Harmer), is in a tizzy, hoping it will lead to “lower costs and higher prices.” Sheila’s brother, the tittering Eric Birling (Hamish Riddle) and mother, Mrs. Birling (Christine Kavanagh) complement the dinner party chit-chat. Underlying the merriment is Mr. Birling’s expectation of making the honors list and his wish to avoid any kind of scandal that might torpedo his recognition.
Then Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) strides into the merriment and launches his righteous inquiry. A girl, Eva Smith, is dead, committing suicide by disinfectant. Eighteen months earlier, she had protested the lower costs at Mr. Birling’s factory, leading a strike and asking for a raise from 22 shillings to 25. The strike is broken and the ringleaders are fired to make an example, setting in motion a chain of events that leads to suicide. Who is to blame?
Mr. Birling takes no responsibility, arguing that since the sacking happened almost two years earlier he has “nothing to do with the wretched girl’s suicide.” The inspector demurs, arguing that it launched a chain of events that led to the final tragedy. His inquest launches with an interrogation of the indignant Mr. Birling who exclaims “If we were all responsible for everything that happened to everybody it would all be very awkward, wouldn’t it?”
Taking his cue, the inspector moves forward with his inquest, one person at a time, eliciting information about their interactions with the dead girl. “You talk as if we were responsible,” Sheila says. Her father stands by his actions, arguing that “if you don’t come down sharply on some of these people, they’d soon be asking for the earth.”
“It’s better to ask for the earth than to take it,” Goole responds. As the inquest proceeds and the complex class dynamics unfold which, in one way or the other, link the girl’s demise to each member of the dinner party, Mr. Birling’s fear of a scandal increases—he might not get his honor after all.
While it is difficult to single out any member of this stellar cast—all the actors are simply excellent—Brennan is wonderful as the inspector. He controls the stage using his frame, setting the pace of the play like a drummer in a well run band, extracting answers from each character in a forceful manner, like a bulldog hunting for a bone. As Mr. Birling, Harmer demonstrates a lack of remorse, concern for the self, and self-justification that often characterize successful businesspeople. Kavanagh is as assured and imperious as Mrs. Birling as Harvey, playing her daughter, is racked with guilt and burdened with a conscience.
Stephen Daldry first directed An Inspector Calls in 1992, collaborating with scenic designer Ian MacNeil to create the unique doll’s house that opens up on a misty set. Both director and set designer are working together again on this a quarter century later, and both are in fine form. This is a production that screams, “go to the theater!” Heed the call.
To Dec. 23 at 610 F St. NW. $44–$125. (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.