Opening nights have a peculiar energy; there is this serious nervousness that pervades every aspect, causing little hiccups to pop and peek at the most inopportune times. The light cues may be a moment late, the lines may either be a little too fast or too slow, blocking is often still a little clunky; opening nights reveal the actors and crew at their most anxious. The opening night of Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestly was no different; but despite its obvious flaws, remained an entertaining and engrossing work.
The play begins in an elegant dining room. Sheila Birling (Katie Wieland) has just consented to marry Gerald Croft (John Skelley), thus uniting their two industrially powerful families. Her father, Arthur Birling (Joseph Dellger); mother, Sybil Birling (Mia Dillon); brother, Eric Birling (John Evans Reese); along with the two lovers have gathered to celebrate the good news. The party proceeds with only slight signs of familial dysfunction, and of course, much port and many cigars; that is until a knock is heard at the door. Enter Inspector Goole (Christopher Kelly). Inspector Goole interrogates each family member, in turn, about their relationships to and knowledge of the late Miss Eva Smith. Initially each denies any knowledge, though eventually they come to understand their respective roles in her life and death. In An Inspector Calls, the thrills may come in the questioning, but the real mystery doesn’t begin until after all of the Inspector’s questions have been answered.
My attention was immediately captured by the luxurious and purposeful design of the set; it spoke tactfully to wealth and societal dominance without overpowering the action of the actors or over-drawing the attention of the audience. In a color palette of soft pinks, medium woody browns, dark and creamy greens, and tastefully placed golds, the set kept the audience engaged, even when the action of the play suffered from poor timing or otherwise poor delivery. The obvious concern with and adherence to period detail was also greatly appreciated.
The acting certainly had its ups and downs: muffled lines, awkward movements, and the feeling that these characters aren’t quite moving each other. Yet hiccups aside, there were some golden moments. John Skelly and John Evans Reese, who played Gerald Croft and Eric Birling respectively, provided some of the more moving and emotive performances; they were the actors and characters who kept up the production’s momentum. Joseph Dellger, Katie Wieland, and Mia Dillon, though able to mime their respective characters, failed to give the audience any real third dimension. The performance I knew least how to take was Christopher Kelly’s rendition of Inspector Goole. His Goole was cold, intimidating, and controlled, but played in such a dead-pan fashion that each line, each expression and movement, seemed less original that its predecessor. Kelly was able to grip the audience with the sheer intensity of the script and the laughs he was eliciting; I am left to wonder, though, if the laughs were purposefully sought or if they were byproducts of an inarticulate grasp at a difficult character.
Mary B. Robinson knew exactly how to direct this play. The staging was excellent. The blocking (when properly executed) was captivating. The cut-shots to the girls slaving away in factories were mesmerizing, and truly brought home the exaggerated class differences at work in this piece. What I must praise, not above all but certainly, is the decision to remove the intermission; nothing could have been more suited for this piece.
Ultimately when An Inspector Calls is good, it is really good; any subsequent production in this run will only go to prove this declaration. And as for the small mishaps, I am most willing to forgive and dismiss them; they were nothing more than first night jitters. And, jittery or not, the mystery is what drew me in and kept me on the edge of my seat.
An Inspector Calls runs February 19 – March 5, 2016, at Pioneer Theatre. With 7:30 p.m. showings Monday – Thursday, 8:00 p.m. showings on Friday and Saturday, and 2:00 p.m. matinees on Saturday. Tickets are $25-$38. http://www.pioneertheatre.org/2015-2016-season/