Arts theater review

Fire, blood, and anguish

A trip back to before The War to End All Wars reveals dark secrets

8985 an inspector calls
A boy (Kevin Pierre) is looking at the Birling House during the opening scenes of 'An Inspector Calls.'

An Inspector Calls
Directed by Stephen Daldry
By J. B. Priestley
Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre
March 14–24

A broken house on broken ground. An empty street. A radio filled with music. The curtains at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre rose to these strange sights. As they do, a heavy rain fell from above. The waters spattered onto a cobblestone pathway onstage while children kicked up the puddles made in the storm’s wake. A house stood in the middle of the mist that coated the stage. One could hear the sound of heels upon the cobblestone as a man in a trenchcoat approached the house, overflowing with the sound of merrymaking, and cast his shadow on the windowpane.

An Inspector Calls, from its first moments, whisks its audience away from the modern day into a darker era, 1912, the years right before The War to End All Wars. Everything serves to paint this dark image in England. Everything, from the way the night sky is stained a deep blue to the period appropriate clothing, reveals a time before war. It’s in that place that we watch a thriller about the recent death of one Eva Smith.

I won’t spoil too much, so the following is a brief and vague recounting of the story. Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) has arrived at the Birling Estate from the infirmary to interrogate each member of the household. However, the Birlings don’t take kindly to his inquisition. In the middle of an engagement party, the Birlings had been celebrating the upcoming marriage between Gerald Croft (Andrew Macklin) and Sheila Birling (Lianne Harvey). They speak of future deals and their disdain with the state of the country. In short, they are caricatures of English high society. Their coattails reach down to the ground while they raise their noses up at those beneath them.

But then, their night takes a sharp turn into anguish as the inspector puts each of them through a trial by fire to reveal the truth. With each character’s realization that they all contributed to Eva’s suicide, the plot unfolds more and more. The Birling’s broken home does so with them, opening up to display a gaudy sense of wealth and pretension. It was a literal dollhouse and it unfolded just like one. The other technical aspects of the show were also jaw-dropping, leading one to question how the designers managed to fit everything onstage. The very same house later falls apart only to be pulled back together. Meanwhile, the lights are balanced perfectly to create this ephemeral dream.

Well, less of a dream and more of a symphony. Each act opens with a haunting melody, an eclectic mix of strings and winds that further paints this small town mystery. Many times during the play, you would wonder whether the director intended to hint at something even darker than the grim setting of the story. Of course, that’s not to say that this was a tale of tragedy.

Liam Brennan delivers a captivating performance as Inspector Goole. Being both the judge and the jury, Brennan plays his character with a fae-like intent. He glides across the stage with poise rivaling that of a ballerina. We see none of this spectacular acting until later on in the play as he gets into the thick of his interrogation. Although, the true star has to be Lianne Harvey, who plays Sheila Birling. She displays an incredible range and understanding of her character. She went from fully embracing the posh and classist aspect of her character to a softer, kinder woman by the end of the play. It was a slow transformation, one that Harvey nailed with ease.

I could speak more of this play’s merits, but it is also worth mentioning the slight blemish towards the end of the play. The play suffers from a disappointing interim act as it transitions into its last act. However, it is a marvelous execution regardless.

“Fire, blood, and anguish,” uttered Sheila at the end. A tale spun at the end of 1945, the end of War World II, tells us to walk with caution. It is a scorched earth we still walk on to this day, no matter how much cobblestone has been lain down. An Inspector Calls demands that we never forget our wrongdoings and to change for the betterment of others. As Inspector Goole tells his captive audience, “We’re responsible for each other.”