In today’s world, where we have the ability to see every story there is to see onscreen, onstage or on the page, it’s rare that a performance leaves you truly speechless. But it happened.
That was the power of Starving Artist Productions’ most recent production, An Inspector Calls, which runs through March 2 at the Black Box Theater in the Burlington Road Building.
J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls tells the tale of the Birling clan, a well-to-do British family who finds their dinner party interrupted by a police investigation concerning the recent suicide of a working class girl named Eva Smith. As the investigation proceeds, the Birlings are forced to confront the terrible possibility that each of them played a role in the girl’s death.
An Inspector Calls is both a crime drama and a tragic tale of human relationships. At the opening, the play draws you in with the mystery surrounding Eva’s demise: Who is this girl, and what does the family know about her? But as the night continues, the focus shifts from an individual person’s story to a universal tale of the power every human being has to affect another.
That said, there’s no easy way to sum up what An Inspector Calls is really about. Theater scholars have interpreted the play to be, among other things, a symbol of socialism versus capitalism, a discrediting of the intentions behind chivalry and a critique of morality. But no matter what the play’s deeper meaning may be, it’s still intriguing for its sheer family drama and depiction of life in the Edwardian era.
And that’s really a testament to the play itself. The most haunting moments of An Inspector Calls occur in the casual way the family talks about their interactions with the doomed Eva Smith, and each of their seemingly minor mistakes, which ended up causing her downfall.
There wasn’t one stand-out role in the performance: each actor was cast perfectly, and they all played their parts with honesty and ease, giving the audience the impression that each of these characters’ contributions to the plot, and to the world in general, had equal weight.
Sheila Birling, played by College sophomore Kelly Spicer, could have easily been written off as the ingÃ©nue, but avoided that categorization with sincere illustrations of guilt, inquisitiveness and internal conflict. College junior Rob Gelfand managed to make you both love and hate Eric Birling. And College senior Brandon Munda, who played the titular Inspector Goole, had a remarkable stage presence which evoked the feel of a traditional film-noir detective, who, without saying a word, told you that he knows everything.
If anything, what deserves special praise is the exceptional set and costume design. Having all the action transpire in one central location – the Birling family’s dining room – puts all the emphasis on the environment, which comes to serve as both a room for entertaining and a place where tragedy unfurls. The authenticity of the staging comes from the details, like old-fashioned portraits on the walls and the conventional velvet armchair.
This staging impressively conveyed the fashions of the classic Edwardian era. Yet, instead of merely showcasing their wealth and class, the setting serves most successfully as a stark opposition to the horrific stories the family tells of their dealings with the working class.
The play certainly has a different connotation now than it did when it premiered in 1945. Arthur Birling’s speech about how technology will soon render war completely futile would be a lot more jarring to a world just coming off of World War II, and the debate over workers’ rights was at its zenith.
But maybe the coolest thing about An Inspector Calls is that today, those themes really don’t feel all that distant. We are still faced with questions of how we impact the lives of others, what is and isn’t our duty and when to take responsibility for mistakes.
As Inspector Goole tells the family, “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 fire and blood and anguish.”
This foreboding nature ends up serving as the ultimate unraveling of his investigation: after he leaves, the family dissects the investigation, eventually coming to the conclusion that Inspector Goole wasn’t a police inspector at all. They laugh it off, relieved that they aren’t in trouble with the police. But the scene is effective in leaving the audience with an uneasy feeling: even if there was not an investigation, they all still devastated another person’s life.
I still have absolutely no idea what the ending was supposed to mean – and, believe me, the ending is unquestionably what will leave everyone talking afterwards – but perhaps, when you get down to it, that’s the beauty of this play. Maybe Priestly did have a philosophical, profound meaning in mind. Maybe not. But even if it is just a family drama, it’s still just a really good story. It’s a story of a mysterious suicide just as much as it’s a story of human relationships. And Eva Smith, whatever her story may be, is a name that will not be quickly forgotten.
– By Emelia Fredlick