MN Players Revives A Classic British Drama

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

The cast of AN INSPECTOR CALLS includes (standing) Havertown's John Devine, Philadelphia's Jonathan Glick, Wilmington's Timothy Oskin, Philadelphia's Brian Harrington, (seated) Philadelphia's Bonnie Kapenstein, Philadelphia's Erin Carr, and (not pictured) Lansdowne's Cindy Nagle Walton, running at MN Players in Swarthmore, PA through May 19.

Written just as WWII was ending in 1945, J.B. Priestley’s AN INSPECTOR CALLS is meant as an indictment of Britain’s aristocracy.  It is perhaps Priestley’s best known works [in large part due to an inventive and bold revival by Britain’s National Theatre in 1992] and considered to be one of the classics of mid-20th century English theatre.  MN Players have chosen to mount the play now as a commentary on America’s infamous “1%.”  And it is a story about the haves and have-nots.

Priestley was a Socialist and this three-act drama, which takes place on a single night in 1912, focuses on the prosperous middle-class Birling family, who live in a comfortable home in Brumley, an industrial city in the north Midlands region of Great Britain.  It is evening and the family is celebrating the engagement of daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft, the son of another wealthy family.  Patriarch Arthur Birling has dreams of a title in the House of Lords and in his mind this marriage is as much a merger of wealth and power as it is a love match.  The arrival of a man identifying himself as “Inspector Goole” sets in motion the events of the night—and unravels the family’s carefully protected life.

Inspector Goole informs the family that a young working-class woman, Eva Smith (also known as Daisy Renton) has committed suicide that evening and certain entries in her diary have led him to the Birlings.    Bit by bit it is revealed that each member of the group had interactions with the dead young woman—in ways that demeaned her and took advantage of her “lower station” in life.  I won’t belabor the plot here, but as the night progresses, the younger generation starts to see their responsibility for those less fortunate, but their elders end the night the same as they started—looking down their noses at everyone.

John Devine plays Arthur Birling, a typical detached British male of that era.  Devine has a certain ease and elegance that suits the role well, but he could use a bit more of that British “Harrumph” attitude. As his wife Sybil, Bonnie Kapenstein has a better handle on the demeanor of an entitled upper-class woman at the start of the last century.  She was suitably offended at the Inspector’s intrusion.  Cindy Walton takes on the role of the single representative of the working class, the family maid, Edna.  Ms. Walton is quite adept at being that silent presence—I just wish they had opted to have her on hand more throughout the action, even if she didn’t have lines.  It would have added an interesting level to have her there as Mr. and Mrs. Birling spouted their views on “those people.”

The youngest son, Eric Birling is a stereotype—the young wastrel.  Jonathan Glick has the honors at MNP.    He does a credible job, though I found some of his mannerisms off-putting.    A major issue is his need to work on his diction; there were a number of times when we were unable to understand his lines.  The next stereotype represented is the dashing young aristocratic fiancé—who turns out to be cheating.  Brian Harrington mined this role for as much as he could.  As his bride-to-be, Sheila Birling, Erin Carr does a nice job as a naïve young girl.  Her character goes through the biggest epiphany by the end of the evening, and Carr handled this rather well.  Last, but not least, there is Tim Oskin as the Inspector.  Oskin brings a certain gravitas to the role, and seemed to have the best understanding of British classes and society at that time.

The set design by Jim Neal was fairly basic.   The creation of an exterior front door at house right—that was only used by the Inspector seemed totally unnecessary.  And the chandelier seen through the archway at upstage center was very glaring to the eye as you watched the action.  The fact that they seemed unable to turn it off for blackouts added to the problem.  Tracy Hawkins’ costumes were attractive, but the ladies did not seem to be in the appropriate era to my eye.

The play, like most British drawing room dramas, is exceedingly wordy and full of redundancies.  My companion and I both felt some judicious cutting was in order.  Director Dani Kennedy could have made the pace crisper to heighten the drama as well—and there were some traffic problems that more inventive furniture placement might have alleviated.

Another theme of this play is a person taking responsibility for their actions—something that seems to have fallen by the wayside in recent years. The John Edwards case comes immediately to mind. The Wall Street movers and Shakers who created our financial mess got huge bonuses—and no criminal charges. Celebrities get slaps on the writs for major offenses. Everyone has a million excuses as to why they aren’t to blame for things. What messages are we sending to future leaders?

The story also deals with our responsibility to those around us—especially the less fortunate. There is no denying that America has developed a “class system” of its own over the past decade or so. The rich keep getting richer and controlling everything. They keep legislating advantages for themselves as they decimate social programs, and the rest of us are being left out in the cold. It is interesting to look at this play in light of all I have mentioned. Much of Priestley’s dialogue gets heavy-handed and preachy, but the concepts that our actions have consequences and that we are all our “brother’s keeper” are worth bringing to our attention periodically.

By J.B. Priestley
Directed by Dani Kennedy
May  4—19, 2012
MN Players
@ Swarthmore United Methodist Church
129 Park Avenue
Swarthmore, PA 19081

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