J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls is a scathing indictment of British class systems in 1912. And Everyman Theatre is the perfect venue for it. They are known for outstanding productions, beautifully and attentively presented. So I was not the least surprised by this gem on display as the theatre opens their 25th season. This riveting drama, rarely seen, could not have found a more suitable host.
The Birling family is what we’d consider upper class by today’s standards, what with the patriarch being considered for a knighthood and the lady of the house being every inch the Grande Dame of the manor. In post-Victorian England they are the epitome of tasteful gentility. Their two children, Eric and Sheila, have been properly reared to perpetuate the values and mores their parents have so carefully instilled in them. To do otherwise would be unthinkable. On the night that they have all gathered to celebrate the engagement of Sheila to one Gerald Croft, son of a genuine Sir, the idyllic dinner party is interrupted by a visitor. An Inspector has arrived to tell them that a young woman has died a horrible death by drinking cleaning solution. She’s left a diary of sorts that has led the Inspector to the Birling household. What he finds out will shatter long held illusions, expose petty prejudices, reveal shocking secrets, and force each of the characters to confront the very core of their beliefs.
Director Noah Himmelstein paces the drama with precise timing, allowing scenes to build, ebb and wane with the touch of a pro. His sure hand is evident in everything from the blocking to the finely controlled performances of the stellar cast. Timothy R. Mackabee’s design and Jay A. Herzog’s lights are staged perfectly. Both are masters at their craft. The production’s single set of a Victorian dining room is lovely and Herzog’s lighting adds drama in all the right places. David Burdick costumes the family, in the formal dining wear common in 1912 with great style, and the rest of the cast is just as well dressed for their positions, from the Inspector’s tweeds to the servant’s uniform.
Bruce Randolph Nelson is the patriarch Arthur Birling, the archetypical upper class Englishman. Vain and full of bombastic self-importance, Nelson’s Birling displays his awesome talent as an actor. There’s nary a false note in his performance. He maintains his course with unerring focus.
Deborah Hazlett as Sybil, Arthur’s wife, captures the very essence of a woman who is so entrenched in her vision of her position in society that she refuses to admit her culpability for any of her less than compassionate actions. Haughty and regal, she gives the kind of performance that makes you glad you got to see it.
Jamison Forman is Gerald Croft, fiancé of the Birling daughter, Sybil. His earnest portrayal of a young man with secrets of his own is exceptional. He can be pathetically apologetic in that teddibly British way that is so self-deprecating, without ever letting you forget that he’s a member of the ruling class. You feel more sorry for him than outraged at his callous behavior.
As Eric, the scion of the Birling family, Josh Adams is a feckless drunk with daddy issues, but still arrives at an awareness that his behavior and attitudes are seriously flawed. A skillful performance by an actor playing a stock character – the ne’re do well son. And when his secrets are exposed it shows his ability to rev up his performance like a NASCAR driver.
Sophie Hinderberger imbues Sybil Birling with a commitment to the character that is wondrous to see. At first glance a slightly silly, vapid and one-dimensional character, Hinderberger builds layer on layer to her performance until the audience comes to know that of all the other members of her family, it is Sybil who comes the furthest in her developing awareness that maybe they’ve all been so concerned with their own lives that they’ve ignored all the people that are not of ‘their kind’. A bravura performance from a consummate professional.
The character of the Inspector is brought to life by the uber-talented Chris Genebach. He commands the stage like a field marshal. Inspector Goole wants answers to questions surrounding the death of the girl who touched every member of the Birling family, including the daughter’s fiancé. But it doesn’t take long for us to figure out that he already knows those answers; his goal is to make each of the others reveal their part in the drama. Genebach never wavers, never bends, never releases his hold on the Birling dinner party’s evening, or us. He’s as steady and riveting a performer as I’ve seen all year.
An Inspector Calls at Everyman Theatre is one of those productions that reminds us that Baltimore is as a valid venue for outstanding theatre as anywhere. With great performances by an impressive group of actors at a first-rate facility, Everyman is off to a wonderful start of the 2015-2016 season.
An Inspector Calls
Thru Oct. 11