- Hap Erstein Special to The Palm Beach Post
Police procedurals have long filled the broadcast airwaves, but in 1945 – before television took over our living rooms – playwright J. B. Priestley employed an inspector’s interrogation of an upper-class British family to plumb the socio-political implications of their shared guilt over a young woman driven to take her own life.
If that sounds heavy, it is, but at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, in a melodramatic production of “An Inspector Calls” filled with stage symbols and pyrotechnic flash, this cerebral crime yarn set in 1912 England – a nation bracing for world war – also manages to be involving entertainment.
Avowed socialist Priestley was intent on dramatizing the ways the various strata of society are interconnected. When the mysterious Inspector Goole arrives at the affluent home of industrialist Arthur Birling to investigate the death of Eva Smith, one-by-one the family members insist they know no such person. But rest assured they will soon learn of their links to the woman and the circumstances of their communal responsibility for her demise.
In contrast to Priestley, the Birlings are avowed capitalists, affluent owners of a successful manufacturing plant in Yorkshire. In today’s terms, they are one-percenters and the have nots are their employees who are kept poor by management’s eagerness to keep production costs down. At a dinner celebrating the engagement of daughter Sheila to the son of Birling’s chief competitor, patriarch Arthur scoffs at the impending war. After all, he claims with certainty, the world is on the verge of great technical advances, like the soon-to-be-launched largest ocean liner which is said to be unsinkable.
The play is best known these days for a 1992 London revival in which director Stephen Daldry reconceived the work with heightened theatricality, including a mansion which imploded before the audience’s eyes as the Birlings’ protestations of innocence crumbled. At the Maltz, director J. Barry Lewis conjures up a low-key equivalent, as the well-appointed dining room interior self-destructs and the blue sky overhead eerily, slowly darkens.
Lewis orchestrates a top-notch cast with a heightened, histrionic performance style, including frequent direct addresses to the audience as if we were a jury sitting in judgment over them.
The company is led by burly James Andreassi – last seen locally in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ “The Little Foxes” – who brow-beats the Birlings into confessing their links to the dead woman who used several aliases. If it strikes you that he behaves unlike any prudent policeman, you are on to something, one of Priestley’s many rug-pulling plot twists.
Rob Donohoe is all bluster as Arthur Birling, incensed at Goole’s impertinence. As his wife Sybil, Angie Radosh is even more imperious, with a haughty stare that would make a lesser inspector quiver. Charlotte Bydwell’s Sheila is the most sympathetic to the dead girl, even after she learns of her fiance’s (Jeremy Webb) illicit relationship with her. Cliff Burgess is tuxedo suave as young Eric Birling, heir to the family business, which makes his unnerving all the more palpable. And keep an eye on the stolid servant staff, led by Elizabeth Dimon as their inscrutable major domo.
As usual, the Maltz design work is first-rate, from Tracy Dorman’s well-starched formal wear to Kirk Bookman’s harsh lighting to Marty Mets’ ominously rumbling soundscape.
The Maltz Jupiter may always be known for its musicals, but the skill and care it gives to producing plays is evident in “An Inspector Calls.” The bad news: the brief run through Sunday is said to be completely sold out. But be persistent and hang out by the box office for a last-minute cancellation.