Magic Time!: ‘An Inspector Calls’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company

A commentary on our times so politically pertinent one might suppose the playwright was clairvoyant.

J. B. Priestley’s classic An Inspector Calls—a drawing-room drama set in England in 1912 and written there in 1944has landed in DC with uncanny currency. Now at Sidney Harman Hall in a touring production first staged in London a quarter century ago, An Inspector Calls plays like a commentary on our times so politically pertinent one might suppose the playwright was clairvoyant.

The ensemble in ‘An Inspector Calls.’  Photo by Mark Douet.

There is a lot that’s buzzworthy about the show besides its contemporary resonance. The actors, who have just come off a UK tour, are uniformly superb. The stagecraft is eye-popping; it includes nighttime rain, a dank cobblestone exterior where street urchins run about, and a posh Victorian house that opens to its interior like a brightly lit jewel box.

The suspenseful story unspools like a classy whodunnit. The plot is set in motion when a London police officer arrives at an upscale home to investigate the recent suicide of an impoverished young woman. One by one, he questions the wealthy family members, and one by one they are each implicated in the poor woman’s death. As the mysteries of how, when, why, and how are revealed, the audience’s attention is ever more riveted.

Jeff Harmer, Diana Payne-Myers, Lianne Harvey, Hamish Riddle, Andrew Macklin, Christine Kavanagh and Ensemble in ‘An Inspector Calls.’ Photo by Mark Douet.

With the investigation gathering force, the play’s theme gathers steam. Dramatic tension builds sharply in the harsh contrast in circumstances between haves and have-nots. The young woman who died by suicide becomes a stand-in for all society’s dispossessed. Supernumeraries dressed as down-and-outs mass in mute witness. And the play shines an ever more glaring light on the responsibility of the privileged to the village of people who are left poor in pursuit of profit.

The wonder is that a play written in another country three quarters of a century ago arrives in our nation’s capital just now—at this very moment when there is a life-or-death conversation going on among elected suckups to the owning class, who just cut taxes for the super rich, about how threadbare they can make the social net.

An Inspector Calls comes calling on our collective conscience right on time. Don’t miss it.

[Read Sophia Howes’s review of An Inspector Calls.]

Running Time: About one hour 45 minutes, with no intermission.

An Inspector Calls plays through December 23, 2018, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, performing at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-547-1122, or go online.

 

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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