Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 29
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
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INTENSE INTERROGATIONS: Inspector Goole (Shawn Fennell) stares down his resistant suspect (Aaron Strand) in a rehearsal for Princeton Summer Theater’s production of J.B. Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls,” a 1945 psychological murder mystery with a heavy dose of social commentary, running through July 27 at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.

“An Inspector Calls,” Murder Mystery With a Social Conscience, Brings Soul-Searching Melodrama to Princeton Summer Theater

Donald Gilpin

There is an air of excitement this summer at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. It’s the kind of excitement that pervades a theater when what’s happening on stage is happening with the full commitment, energy, intelligence, and imagination of all involved. It’s the kind of excitement that makes theater emotionally and intellectually engaging — meaningful to present and well worth seeing. The purveyors of this excitement and first-rate entertainment are the dedicated, young ensemble of the Princeton Summer Theater (PST) company. Their current production, J.B. Priestley’s 1945 socially conscious murder mystery An Inspector Calls, is another winner.

An Inspector Calls is not a great play. The mostly predictable, melodramatic, heavy-handed plot, characterization, and moralizing could be tedious in the hands of a less high-powered and inventive group. PST, directed here by Lileana Blain-Cruz, a 2006 Princeton university graduate who has been working in professional theater in New York City and elsewhere, brings Priestley’s old chestnut to life with focused creative energy, commitment to character, and an artistic flair in design and production.

An Inspector Calls takes place in the well appointed Yorkshire dining room of the prosperous, self-centered Birling family on an evening in the spring of 1912. World War I looms in the near future, but Mr. Birling (Aaron Strand), businessman and industrialist, presiding over an engagement dinner with his wife (Heather May), adult son (John Hardin), daughter (Tara Richter-Smith), and daughter’s fiancé (Tyler Crosby), exudes optimism, extolling the virtues of technology and capitalism.

Priestley does not spare the ironies, as Birling continues his pontifications: “Why, a friend of mine went over this new liner last week — the Titanic — she sails next week — forty-six thousand eight hundred tons — New York in five days — and every luxury — and unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable.”

Nor does Priestley hold back on his pointed political commentary. Just before Birling’s speech — along with his life and the lives of everyone else in the room — is interrupted by the sharp ring of the doorbell and the arrival of the inspector, Mr. Birling expounds on his social theories: “The way some of these cranks talk and write now, you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else — community and all that nonsense. But take my word for it, you youngsters — and I’ve learnt in the good hard school of experience — that a man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own…”

The mysterious Inspector Goole (Sean Fennell) — pale (ghoulish?) and austere in appearance, penetrating and relentless in his interrogations — enters and proceeds to expose, one by one, the guilt of each member of the gathering. A pretty young woman has apparently just committed suicide, and the uncanny inspector exposes incriminating links to each member of the assembled company. Everybody in the Birling family seems to be involved in the death of Eva Smith, and, as Goole and Priest-ley hasten to point out, we are responsible for our fellow humans; we cannot ignore the outcasts of society.

“An Inspector Calls” will run through July 27, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.on the Princeton University campus. Visit or call (609) 258-7062 for tickets and information.

Goole warns, “There are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering, and chances of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.”

The theme of socialism, of common interests, and common responsibility, was a prominent one throughout Priestley’s long, distinguished career in England as a novelist, playwright, critic, and essayist. He was a powerful and popular radio broadcaster during World War II, promoting the cause of Britain and the rise of the Labour Party. The warning voice of Inspector Goole is the voice of conscience not only for the Birling family in the play, but also for the whole of European society heading towards war in 1912 and again a warning in 1944-45, when the play was written, of the need to learn that we cannot forsake our responsibilities to all members of society.

Ms. Blain-Cruz’s staging effectively places the audience in the midst of this world of British tradition and privilege and at the same time in a world of ominous insecurity, ambiguous morality, and mystery. A raked stage brings the proceedings forcefully into the consciousness of the main audience, and two rows of spectators at the back of the stage provide an interesting sense of inclusion for all in the events of the evening. Allen Grimm’s design — lighting and set — creates an eerie haze over the stage, foreboding and undermining the smug optimism of the Birlings as they celebrate their daughter’s engagement. The haze, of course, suggests an increasing psychological and moral uncertainty for the Birling family, as Inspector Goole brings out a series of revelations that gradually expose their guilt. Mitch Frank’s ghostly sound effects include a ringing sound, suggesting perhaps the final knell that tolls for all.

Direction, acting, and production values here are superb, bringing out rich ambiguities in character, situation, and ethics and mitigating some of Priestley’s heavy-handedness in plotting and politicking. At the same time this production — with its dramatic lighting effects and well timed, striking performances — provides thrilling drama. This may be melodrama, but it is thoroughly entertaining. It may be manipulative, but only in the best sense of the word.

Mr. Fennell, dressed in black with impressive sideburns and whiskers, strikes an imposing figure as the indomitable inspector. Vulture-like in his assault on the vulnerable, guilty consciences of his prey, he conveys an other-worldly presence, delivering the playwright’s voice and providing Priestley’s social criticism from the future.

Mr. Strand and Ms. May’s Mr. and Mrs. Birling are in character and incorrigible in their selfish elitism. He assures himself that he is right to keep labor costs down — no matter what the human costs — and she remains smugly self-satisfied in her condemnation of the lower orders of society and their transgressions. It is a pleasure to watch these accomplished actors as they make the stretch in age, era and social milieu to embody the stubbornly wrong-headed exemplars of early twentieth century British society.

The younger Birlings represent Priestley’s hope for the future, as they are genuinely affected and changed by the Inspector’s admonitions, and accept their guilt and responsibility for the plight of the deceased Eva Smith and for their role in society. Tara Richter Smith is sympathetic and appealing in her range of emotions, as she confronts her controlling, benighted parents, her deceitful fiancé, and her corrupt brother.

Mr. Hardin is appropriately ill-tempered and devious as the alcoholic son/brother, and Mr. Crosby plays the young man of privilege, fiancé, and young capitalist with confidence and conviction.

As Edna the maid, Veronica Siverd adeptly presents an evocative presence throughout the evening. Dressed all in black, she eerily observes the proceedings, from the moment when the audience first enters the theater until she silently helps to bring about the mysterious conclusion to the drama.

Revived in London fifteen years ago in a memorable, surrealistic production directed by Stephen Daldry, then brought to Broadway for a successful run, An Inspector Calls is an apt moral fable for the twenty-first century phenomenon of corporate greed, ever-widening gaps between rich and poor, and our growing sense of global interdependence in a world where we can no longer ignore the victims of Darfur or strife in the Middle East or urban decay and disaster in our own country. Princeton Summer Theater’s dynamic production forcefully delivers Priestley’s timely message, and provides a thrilling, intriguing theatrical experience in the process.

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