Like so much else in our present moment, it’s unfair.
J.B. Priestley’s 1945 drama “An Inspector Calls,” as revived by director Stephen Daldry, offers a biting criticism of capitalist hypocrisy and class divisions, disguised at first as an Edwardian mystery. But alas, our national circumstance makes it seem like docudrama.
Consider the characters: a blustery, truth-allergic businessman, his imperious wife, his pathetic son (named Eric!), his beautiful, privileged daughter and his scheming son-in-law (to be). Consider the toll they take on the less fortunate, and the way their lives are thrown into turmoil by the arrival of a tall, implacable, formally dressed investigator. We might as well call it — spoiler alert — “An Inspector Calls . . . And Ivanka Gets Woke.”
This is a flippant take, of course, but it can’t help but run through your mind as you watch this vivid touring production, presented by ArtsEmerson at the Cutler Majestic Theatre through March 24. This is Daldry’s remounting of his much-lauded 1990s revival, and the highly stylized production adds to the eeriness of Priestley’s parable.
The play opens in 1912 as the prosperous Birling family is celebrating daughter Sheila’s (Lianne Harvey) engagement to the young up-and-comer Gerald Croft (Andrew Macklin). Patriarch Arthur Birling (Jeff Harmer) is all about the port and cigars, barking at his hapless son Eric (Hamish Riddle) while bonding with his future son-in-law.
But we are, quite intentionally, watching from outside. Credit designer Ian MacNeil with the half-scale mansion perched podlike on piers in the middle of the stage. Around it: a sort of wasteland, with a shattered phone booth, a cloudy night sky, and a scattering of urchins in the shadows listening to the laughter and clinking glasses from inside. It’s Dickens with more than a hint of dystopia.
Enter Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan), a tall, serious character in a trenchcoat and fedora who we know is a good guy because he bonds with the urchins first. And when he calls out the Birlings, he literally calls them out; the house splits open, and one by one he brings them down to the ground — down to earth? — for questioning. It seems that a young, working-class woman named Eva Smith has killed herself in a particularly awful fashion, by drinking disinfectant. And Goole is here to dig into every family member’s connections to the dead woman, starting with Sheila and ending with her imperious mother, Sybil (Christine Kavanagh), who leads a local charity.
If “An Inspector Calls” were written today, it might be criticized for centering on the perpetrators of its class crimes rather than their victim. But the worst that can be said, really, is that Priestley’s play is a bit talky, which Daldry’s production can’t quite disguise. Characters occasionally move across the stage before delivering a line for no other purpose than to provide a little action. The 100 intermissionless minutes fly past, although a sort of coda after the Inspector departs goes on too long.
Let’s not spoil the secrets the Inspector’s interrogations expose, but a terrific, measured performance by Brennan lends the proper gravitas to his final speech about our responsibility to one another and the price we will pay if we ignore that obligation.
At one point, a Birling says, “You mustn’t try to build a wall between us and that girl.” One amazing thing about this play is that 70-odd years after it was written, it can seem a little too on the nose. Let’s just hope that doesn’t apply to the part about a comeuppance in “fire and blood and anguish.”
AN INSPECTOR CALLS
Play by J.B. Priestley. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At the Cutler Majestic Theatre, through March 24. Tickets $39-$159, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org
Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org