HE KNOWS WHODUNIT Petronio and Batting.
The British drawing room mystery has always been an enjoyable staple of theater, however campy and quaint. Typically we're in a remote country manor in which the police inspector, usually from Scotland Yard, gathers the suspects, spanning the social spectrum from posh to peasant, and cleverly extracts incriminating evidence from them leading to the climactic j'accuse!
An Inspector Calls, by J.B. Priestley, plays a delightful variation on the tradition, inserting a blatantly political subtext. With style and finesse, 2nd Story Theatre is staging the short play (three intermission-free acts packed into 75 minutes) through December 2 at the Bristol Courthouse, rather than in their Warren digs (so Neil Simon's Lost In Yonkers can overlap there). As usual, director Ed Shea conducts the proceedings with breezy efficiency.
The opening is a picture of aristocratic 1912 opulence, with a wealthy family seated around a dining room table, concluding an engagement party. The scene oozes privilege, between Trevor Elliott's set design and the black tie and ornate-gown costume design of Ron Cesario. The setting has been shifted to the US, since the human failings marching forth are not restricted to those who talk funny, so the patriarch here is hoping to be appointed to the president's cabinet rather than to head a ministry, as Priestley had it.
That self-impressed gentleman, Arthur Birling (Tom Roberts), epitomizes the oblivious complacency of the wealthy in two regards: any rumblings about an impending great war, he contends, will soon subside because there is "too much at stake" for them that's got; as for them that ain't got, the mill owner disdains agitators in the streets who absurdly contend that we are morally obliged to take care of one another. We can already see why this play premiered in Moscow in 1945 before getting to London soon after.
Interrupting the get-together comes Inspector Goole (Vince Petronio), who tells them he has just left the hospital where a young woman named Eva Smith has died after two hours of agony, having swallowed a bottle of lye. What has this to do with them? Birling asks. One by one, the inspector draws them out into revealing how each of the five at the party contributed to the gradual downward spiral of the young woman until her demise was inevitable.
Without giving the specifics of culpability away, let's just say that Birling owns the factory where the spirited young woman was involved in a strike; his wife, Sybil (Joan Batting), is a community leader in the position to help the down and out; daughter Sheila (Laura Sorensen), being a scion of privilege, is likely to be deferred to in social interactions, fairness be damned; her fiancé, Gerald Croft (Tim White), is a guy, 'nuff said; and brother Eric Birling (Jeff Church) is the family alcoholic, not the most reliable of roles.
Responsibility and the acceptance of such is the main theme here. Sheila is the most compassionate of the bunch and the only one willing to accept hers. Arthur, the self-described "hard-headed businessman," wouldn't consider accepting blame anymore than a guard dog would for biting a burglar. Wife Sybil couldn't do so and still see herself as the picture of social rectitude. Eric, the drunk never acknowledged as such by his mother, is a heedless hound. And Gerald, whose self-image requires that he think of himself as an honorable man, is also a fallible human being.