‘An Inspector Calls’ a marvelous, oh so timely tale at Chicago Shakespeare

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Liam Brennan (from left), Jeff Harmer, Hamish Riddle and Andrew Macklin in the National Theatre of Great Britain’s production of “An Inspector Calls” at The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. | Mark Douet

The old-fashioned red curtain that greets audience members as they take their seats for “An Inspector Calls” at The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater is a misdirect. It suggests something that will be beautifully crafted but theatrically stodgy — dutiful but ultimately uninspired. That imagined production couldn’t be farther from what this show has in store. Originally hailing from the National Theatre of Great Britain in 1992, this gorgeously operatic vision from director Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot,” “The Crown”) uses all the elements at his disposal to explore the fiery tract at the heart of J.B. Priestley’s 1945 drama, which melds drawing-room detective story with socialist metaphor.

The show opens with a small boy (local actor Judah Abner Paul) entering from the audience. Clutching a flashlight, he makes his way onstage, dwarfed by the curtain at his back. He takes cover when startled by the sounds of distant, thundering knocks, evoking the WWII-era England in which Priestley wrote the play, which he set in 1912, just before the outbreak of WWI.  When the curtain finally rises, the boy and several other children, seemingly lost, take their place in a Beckettian hellscape: A dark cobblestone street over which looms a ritzy townhouse with the pavement peeling back underneath it like ruptured skin, as though this place’s very existence has injured the world around it.

‘An Inspector Calls’ ★★★★ When: Through March 10 Where: The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Tickets: $46 – $88 Info: chicagoshakes.com Run time: one hour and 45 minutes, no intermission

This is the home of the prominent Birling family, wealthy mill owners who rule over the fictional English city of Brumley with a disdainful mix of piety and greed. The family can be heard inside the home celebrating daughter Shelia’s (Lianne Harvey) engagement to a local heir, Gerald Croft (Andrew Macklin). The house itself is a closed, miniature contraption, one that will later open outward like a dollhouse.

As the children scutter about in the rain outside — along with the family’s elderly servant Edna (Diana Payne-Myers) — they are soon joined by another figure. This would be the Inspector of the show’s title, a nondescript Scotsman named Goole, played with tetchy verve by Liam Brennan. Inspector Goole is conducting an inquiry into the death of young Eva Smith, who killed herself by drinking household disinfectants and left behind only a diary — one that points to the Birlings as the architects of her misery. Goole questions the Birlings (and Gerald) one-by-one, starting with the father, Arthur (Jeff Harmer), who fired Eva from his mill after she led a strike for higher wages. Next is Sheila, whose childish tantrum got Eva from fired from another job at a high-end department store.

As Goole presses them further, Daldry has each family member descend from the house and join the inspector on the street. As much as the Birlings would love to exist in their own comfortable, warmly-lit little bubble hovering high above head, the mysterious Goole has quite the opposite in mind. While the inspector moves through the rest of the family, Priestley’s Agatha Christie-esque framework quickly falls away to reveal the play’s true form.

The script itself staves off predictability through a pair of well-honed twists and nuanced characterizations. On the whole, the children come out looking much better than their parents. They’re still pretty awful, but they seem to have a capacity for remorse — and therefore change.

Hamish Riddle (from left center), Jeff Harmer and Christine Kavanagh in a scene from “An Inspector Calls” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. | Mark Douet

Hamish Riddle (from left center), Jeff Harmer and Christine Kavanagh in a scene from “An Inspector Calls” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. | Mark Douet

Daldry takes every opportunity to perforate the fourth wall, leaning into Priestley’s didacticism and script’s cheeky side-eying of theatrical convention. There’s even a final, thundering coup-de-grace — resulting in a tremendous amount of smashed crockery — that lands like a swift and satisfying kick to the bum.

Aside from the very fine performances — especially Brennan and Harvey — what makes “An Inspector Calls” truly exceptional is its full-force theatrical display. It’s the set (Ian MacNeil), the lighting (Rick Fisher), the music (Stephen Warbeck), the costumes (MacNeil), and the way Daldry sweeps them up into his stunningly original vision. It’s unlikely that the play will change many hearts or minds with regards to its politics (few plays do) but it’s overwhelmingly potent artistry inspires a great deal of wonder. It will leave audiences awestruck, with a slight emphasis on the “struck.”

Alex Huntsberger is a local freelance writer.

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