By: JB Priestley
At: The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave. Tickets: 312-595-5600 or ChicagoShakes.com; $46-$88. Runs through: March 10
U.S. audiences find comfort in watching the British upper class, especially in decadent period dramas that involve solving murders.
By the end of any mystery import from across the pond, the criminal is headed to jail, and everyone still has tea and crumpets, class status undisturbed. Not so in J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls, coming to Chicago Shakespeare Theater from London's National Theatre. When a policeman arrives at the door in this production, the entire class system goes haywire, and one comfortable family learns how much their ill-considered actions affect others.
Inspector Goole ( Liam Brennan ) descends on the Birling house one foggy night in 1912 with questions about a recent suicide victim named Eva Smith. Arthur ( Jeff Harmer ), the family patriarch, sees little reason to care that the young lady used to work in his factory. His daughter Sheila ( Lianne Harvey ) learns that she got the young woman sacked from her next job, and while she feels bad about the circumstances, little can sway her mother Sybil ( Christine Kavanagh ) or her immature brother Eric ( Hamish Riddle ) into immediate sympathy. Sheila's fiancé Gerald ( Andrew Macklin ) has a secret connection of his own to Eva, and before night's end, everyone will have to answer for some form of crime.
Director Stephen Daldry, perhaps best known for his work on Billy Elliot the film and Billy Elliot: The Musical, spares no one's imagination in creating a metatheatrical experience that piles endless elements on top of Priestley's play, hoping to expand the script beyond its Christie-like plotting and standard realism. A trio of unnamed and silent urchin children watch the proceedings, taking stock of Goole's manuvers against the Birlings, but never explaining their presence. Deafening music meant to evoke BBC radio dramas of yesteryear come courtesy of Stephen Warbeck's composition and Sebastian Frost's sound design. And Ian MacNeil's set evokes a bombed out post-war England, with the family's overgrown doll house sitting on skeletal foundations. Simply put, there is a lot going on here, and none of these elements elevate an unsubtle script with tension or engagement.
Priestley's purpose is to condemn the family for its lack of social responsibility, but his story has not aged well. His point is poised for the times we live in, but there is nothing for the audience to wrestle with onstage. We know that the idle rich think of no one but themselves. The technical magic on display, along with fine, felt performances by Brennan and Harvey, does not make up for the unessential alienation of Daldry's production. Comfort is not on offer here, but neither is true insight.