On paper, J.B. Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls” looks like a two-dimensional whodunit. But the legendary, much-lauded National Theatre production from London, which arrives at the Cutler Majestic Theatre March 14-24, is “a feast for the senses,” says actress Lianne Harvey. Harvey plays Sheila Birling, a privileged young woman whose eyes are opened to her complicity in the death of an impoverished woman by the arrival of a determined Inspector Goole.
“Sheila is, in some ways, a stand-in for the audience,” says Harvey. “She’s taken things for granted, and the Inspector helps to wake her up. There’s a moment when the penny drops for her, and the audience, too.”
The action is described as taking place in the Birling family’s dining room while they are celebrating Sheila’s engagement to businessman Gerald Croft. But for their 1992 production, designer Ian MacNeil and director Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot,” “The Crown,” the upcoming film of “Wicked”) took a non-naturalistic approach to the storytelling, placing the Birlings’ home precariously atop stilts, looking more like a doll’s house than a family manse. Over the course of the play, the mysterious inspector brings each family member out of the house and onto the solid ground below to expose their hypocrisy and guilt. Finally, the distance the Birlings have carefully created between themselves and people less fortunate comes crashing down, literally and figuratively.
The extraordinary staging, says MacNeil, was a puzzle he and director Daldry were trying to work out.
“We wanted to explore how the environment can amplify the story,” he says. “It’s not about the set. It’s about how the audience experiences the play.”
What is striking to her, says Harvey, is how powerful Priestley’s themes of collective responsibility are today.
“The play was written in the aftermath of World War II,” she says, “in an effort to encourage a kinder, postwar Britain without the emphasis on class and privilege. Today, we need to be reminded of the same ideas. We live in such a divided world, where not everyone has access to the same level of opportunity. We need to be reminded again of how important it is to take responsibility for each other.”
The production, says MacNeil, who most recently designed the revival of “Angels in America” on Broadway, brings out what makes theater so magical.
“We are all experiencing the story together,” he says. “We go in as individuals, we have a collective experience, and we emerge at the end as an audience. That transformation — emotional, intellectual — is something that only happens in the theater.”
Romance, Russian style
The atmosphere in the Greater Boston Stage Company rehearsal room is decidedly festive. The cast of “Onegin,” which runs March 14-31 at the Stoneham theater, is working on the end of one party scene and the beginning of another.
“There are so many parties in this show,” director Weylin Symes says with a laugh. “They balance the unabashedly emotional love story.”
Based on the classic 19th-century verse novel by Alexander Pushkin and transformed into an opera by composer Peter Tchaikovsky, this 2016 adaptation, by Canadians Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille, puts a pop rock/musical theater spin on the romance. Onegin, a wealthy dandy from Moscow, inherits a country estate only to become involved in a love triangle that leads to a duel and a lifetime of regret.
“It’s such a simple story,” says Symes, the theater’s producing artistic director, “but the composers’ take on it mixes contemporary moments and sounds with the straightforward, sincere characters and a playful approach to storytelling.”
Symes is a longtime fan of Hille, the alt-rock singer who has been writing and performing since the 1990s. “And when I heard about this show, and the overwhelming response it got in Canada, I was eager to bring it here.”
The actors shift from characters to narrators, and from playing a role inside the story to commenting to the audience on the exercise of putting on a show. Throughout the musical, the immersive, party feel is enhanced by the prominent placement of the three-piece band onstage, as well as some audience seating around the edges, and a section of the stage that extends out into the seats.
“We wanted to create that feeling that the audience is part of the party, too,” Symes says.
And while Symes says the story never leaves 19th-century Russia, that doesn’t prevent a microphone or an electric guitar from appearing for the characters to use in a song. The time travel and anachronisms, says Symes, add to the celebratory feel.
“The story follows these star-crossed lovers, but it’s such a reminder of how precious life and love are and how we need to enjoy every moment we can,” he says.
Tickets for “Onegin” are available at www.greaterbostonstage.org.
Mom’s night out
When a sleep-deprived mom escapes to the theater for a break, she is shocked to discover the play she’s witnessing is the tragedy “Medea,” in which a betrayed mother wreaks the ultimate vengeance on her husband.
This play-inside-the-play is “Not Medea,” Allison Gregory’s exploration of love and forgiveness, which is being presented by Flat Earth Theatre. Flat Earth is a small, feisty company that has developed a reputation for selecting dramas that are surprising, challenging, and exciting. “Not Medea,” with just three characters, manages to pull apart a Greek myth and break the fourth wall at the same time. It runs in the Black Box at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, March 15-30. Go to www.flatearththeatre.com for ticket information.
AN INSPECTOR CALLS
Presented by ArtsEmerson. At the Cutler Majestic Theatre, March 14-24. Tickets: $25-$105, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.