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“The way some cranks talk and write now,” puffs the self-satisfied bourgeois gasbag paterfamilias of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, “you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else, as if we were all mixed up together like bees in a hive — community and all that nonsense …. If we were all responsible for everything that happened to everybody we’d had anything to do with, it would be very awkward, wouldn’t it?”
Mr. Birling, the speaker of those lines, refracts his ideas through the prism of Edwardian British society — the action of the play, as Priestley is at pains to tell us, occurs just prior to the voyage of RMS Titanic — but he could stand in for his modern counterparts in any corner of what is laughingly called the First World today.
We live in a period of history that has fancied itself — for too long now — as an Age of Communication: cable television, the Internet, cellular links, talk radio. Yet the more we talk the less we communicate. Born receivers parrot the alleged “ideas” of their reactionary mass-com mentors and pat their own backs for their ability to think for themselves. Countless satellite-provided hours are spent on cell-phones (usually to the terror of one’s fellow drivers) without the exchange of a single concept. The blood and sweat of astronauts and MIT graduates has given us the ability to yammer and bleat at each other across continents and oceans as politicians proclaim fatuous (if not downright terrifying) concepts like a New World Order. We have networks galore, yet do we ever truly connect?
I would imagine that nearly everyone has had a day on which insult has topped injury from morning to evening, accumulating to the point of insupportable despair or ruinous fury, all of it heaped upon us by our fellow beings. And I suspect this Domino Effect is the ultimate cause of any number of calamitous human activities, from suicide to mass murder. When empathy becomes a luxury we can no longer afford, can apocalypse be far behind?
Priestley had other, more urgent reasons to set his 1946 exercise in 1912 than the imminent wreck of an “unsinkable” liner. In two short years, his nation would become embroiled in a conflagration from which he, and millions of others, never fully recovered— and which led, 20 short years later, to an even more catastrophic set of hostilities. The Inspector’s retort to Mr. Birling is pointed and prescient: “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, then they will be taught it in blood and fire and anguish.” What seems at first glance to be a rather ingeniously devised parlor-room thriller turns out to be nothing less than a breathtaking philosophical parable.
Stephen Daldry’s 1994 revival of An Inspector Calls was acclaimed for its staggeringly effective stage design, but Daldry was not (pace John Simon) merely imposing his directorial genius on a dusty old bit of melodrama. Priestley’s post-War concerns are ours — and if they are not, they damn well should be.
Inspired by Daldry, Dr. Kenny C. Gannon’s Peace College Theatre production (Nov. 9-19 in Leggett Theater on the second floor of Main Building on the college’s campus in downtown Raleigh, NC) gives us, in Sonya Drum’s masterly set design and the director’s canny use of it, a house quite literally divided against itself. In the upstage area, the Birlings’ dining room perches precariously above a trench where pipes and tubing come to represent a glimpse into No Man’s Land, complete with periodic releases of steam that call to mind the mustard gas that will poison so many young lives in the near future. The walls resemble a cerulean, Magritte sky dotted with fleecy clouds, but stain drips from the seams — reddish streaks that could be rust or blood, or both: the decaying inner façade of a social order that is about to be ripped apart by the world beyond. It is a pit into which the Birling children will place themselves, illuminated by Jennifer Becker’s hellish red light and lorded over above by their parents (and the daughter’s fiancée) until, finally, these “adults” too descend; what begins as a place of refuge, demarcated by a growing sense of ethical alienation, becomes instead a holding pen for the damned.
The Birlings’ largely silent maid Edna (Anneliese Strigel) shifts between Upstairs and Downstairs by means of a dumbwaiter-like crawlspace, a tart visual reminder of what, to her employers, remains part of their cherished sense of noblesse oblige. Servants are barely registered, certainly not acknowledged as human beings with dreams or interior lives of their own. Like the unfortunate Eva Smith, whose death brings the Inspector into the Birlings’ tangled lives, Edna is, merely, an employee.
Dr. Gannon’s fine cast and direction keep us as off-balance as the Birlings themselves. Jordan Smith is a beautifully mercurial Inspector Goole, detached, enraged, and exhausted in equal measure. As Mr. Birling, Michael Mattison is all pursed-lipped smugness and pompous self-regard, nicely reflected by Stephen LeTrent’s Gerald Croft as a kind of fledgling edition; his selfishness is neither as pronounced nor as reflexive, but you feel he’ll get there in time.
(Two cavils: the presence onstage of modern eyeglasses is distracting, as is the tendency of the men to put their hands in their pockets — a more recent sartorial touch, and one which wouldn’t have been observed in a “respectable” home, especially in front of what the masculine contingent would have regarded as “the fairer sex.”)
As the imperious Mrs. Birling, Gina Kelly is scarily icy — this, you feel, is the image of Motherhood that sent so many boys to their early graves. As the younger Birlings, Sarah Thomas (Sheila) and Ryan Brock (Eric) have neither a wasted gesture nor a false note between them. When I think of the way Thomas twitters excitedly over her engagement ring, overlapping her mother’s practiced assurances or of Brock sitting on the downstairs steps distractedly rubbing a drink against his brow, these two seem just about perfect.
If An Inspector Calls seemed criminally neglected in 1994, when Daldry’s production debuted, it is even more essential in 2005. We ignore Priestley’s warnings at our peril. Indeed, the trouble is we already have, and the peril couldn’t be graver.
Peace College Theatre presents An Inspector Calls Wednesday-Saturday, Nov. 16-19, at 7:30 p.m. Leggett Theater on the second floor of Main Building, 15 E. Peace St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $10 ($5 students). 919/508-2051 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Peace College Theatre: http://www.peace.edu/theatre/ [inactive 9/07]. Internet Broadway Database: http://ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=1565. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047119/. The Play: http://www.aninspectorcalls.com/ [inactive 4/07].