By Brittney Marie Nielson
Even though the Mainstage at the beautiful Centerpoint theater often gets a lot of the attention with its large cast musicals, the smaller Blackbox theater is proving that they are a force to be reckoned with in the small seven person cast of An Inspector Calls written by J.B. Priestley. This compelling work of drama was first performed in 1945 to great acclaim, and has since gone on to enjoy several revivals, including a run during Pioneer Theaters Company’s 2016 season.
The story surrounds a small well-to-do family set in 1912. Like many other works of this kind, the entire play takes place within the confines of one night, which as the show opens, we are to understand is one of celebration as the family toasts the engagement of their only daughter Sheila Birling (Katie Plott) to a handsome young aristocrat named Gerald Croft (Jackson Reo Stewart). Also present at the celebration are Sheila’s father Arthur Birling (Nathan Riddle), mother Sybil Birling (Cathy Ostler), and the brother Eric Birling (Jordan Davis.) It doesn’t take long before the night turns into something that no one in this affluent family could have imagined; brought on by the sudden appearance of Inspector Goole (Ed Farnsworth). What follows is a roller coaster ride that keeps you on the edge of your seat, and leaves you wondering who was this mysterious inspector, and what exactly are we all meant to learn from his visit.
Because the show has so many twists and turns, I hesitate to say much more about the plot, lest I ruin some of the best moments of revelation. This play is just as much a journey for the audience as it is for the characters. The actors in this production do an outstanding job of discovering each new layer in real time with the rest of us.
Riddle shines in his role as the man who is every bit the proper master of the manor. Even though this was just the preview night, Riddle seemed like he had been through weeks of performances already. He is polished and clean in his delivery, and his character is solid and defined. Not only that, but he is just really enjoyable to watch.
This goes for every actor across the board, which is not an easy feat to accomplish when there is so much dialogue. There truly is not a weak link among them, and even in the moments when it seemed as though one of the actors might have stumbled a line, they did it in such a way that made me wonder if perhaps they had been directed to do so – it was that natural. There are never any deer-in-the-headlight moments, no breaks in character, and no lack of confidence. I was truly impressed to see such a solid group of performers top to bottom. Even the maid Edna (Marinda Maxfield), who only had an appearance or two throughout the entirety of the production, is totally believable as her character. She comes on, she does what her character is supposed to do, and she is off. You really got the sense that each actor was an essential cog in the machine of this project, and each one of them held their weight.
As I mentioned before, I was thoroughly impressed by the caliber of each of the performers, and I was particularly impressed with Plott in her portrayal of the daughter. When we first meet her character, you get the sense that she is just another naïve young thing engaged to a man who is going to help her climb the social ladder – But what you quickly come to realize is that she is anything but naïve. Not only do we discover that the daughter seems to be the voice of reason throughout much of the chaos, but she also appears to be the pleading conscience of the family. Plott does an amazing job bringing depth and reality to her character. She is strong, she is vulnerable, and she is entirely believable. I also enjoyed how she was able to find moments of intensity without resorting to yelling or high pitched inflections.
The other standout performance for me was Farnsworth as the Inspector. Even though Farnsworth comes from a background of mostly comedy, you would think that he had spent the majority of his career in the film noir business based off of his compelling portrayal. Farnsworth is a master of creating suspense, and puts thought into every word, every gesture, and even every facial expression of his character. When he moves he moves with purpose, and when he speaks, even his softly delivered lines carry an intensity that fills the entire room. It’s not hard to imagine how it is this family feels compelled to divulge their deepest darkest secrets to this stranger.
The moment you think you have this show “figured out” it will turn on you. I consider myself fairly adept at seeing plot twists coming from a mile away – but I have to admit that even I didn’t see where this tale would eventually lead. By the time intermission arrived I was literally leaned forward in my chair just waiting for the next revelation. Usually by intermission I find myself looking at my phone and wondering how much longer the show is going to go. Not during this show. I was so enthralled in the drama that by the time it was over, it felt as though no time had passed at all. That is a testament not only to the actors and their pacing, but also the director Richie Uminski, and his vision of the piece. As an actor, I have so much respect for directors that can produce such quick paced and compelling work – especially when faced with as much heavy subject matter as this show has.
On that subject, I feel like I should warn you that even though the show isn’t necessarily full of adult language, (swear words and the like) it deals with adult topics that might be too intense for children and more sensitive individuals. If you find yourself offended by the discussion of alcohol, suicide, and adult relations, then you might have a hard time with some of the dialogue of this show. That being said, I was never uncomfortable, nor did I ever feel personally offended by anything that was said. These might be heavy subjects, but the cast treats them with the gravity and soberness that they deserve. You can tell that they are aware of the weight of the message that they are trying to convey.
Davis does an excellent job of embodying the weight and scope of his role. I’ll be honest; during the first act his character came across as slightly rigid, and I found myself wondering if perhaps he was nervous or overthinking his performance. I thought that until the end of the first act when he makes a stunning transformation from stoic and rigid to disheveled and utterly undone. I also very much appreciated the juxtaposition of the mother character, who stays true to herself throughout the show, specifically in her refusal to see any perspective that isn’t her own. It is all too easy to see ourselves in her character, and she did an excellent job at making me hate myself, while being increasingly frustrated with her character’s blindness and arrogance.
There is truly not a lull in this entire performance, and by the time they reach the final climax it becomes just as entertaining to watch the reactions of the surrounding audience members. The gasps, the hands on faces when they finally put it all together – it was really fun to see how into it everyone was getting. After the inspector leaves you might think that the show is over, but really, it is about to take yet another twist. Guided by Stewart, the family begins to question what really happen to them that night. Stewart takes on the role of inspector as he dissects the events of the evening in an attempt to make sense of it all. Stewart also does an excellent job of bringing a real sense of humanity and tenderness to his role. There are times when you feel like you should hate him on principle, but instead you find yourself identifying with him and rooting for him.
Overall, every character is cast appropriately and execute their roles with thoughtfulness and heart. There is a cohesiveness between the characters that is refreshing to see from a show that is about to see an audience for the first time. You can tell that each of the actors took the time to discover motivations, and history for each of their character, and each one has a story to tell, and a lesson to teach.
I had an opportunity to interview Farnsworth about his feelings on the overarching message of the piece, and he shared with me that even though the world of these characters takes place over 100 years ago, the message that it contains remains as relevant today (if not more so) as when it was written. When I asked Farnsworth what he wanted people to take away from the performance, he told me that he hoped that people would “Come to let the show in.” The biggest takeaway for me was the idea that none of us live in a vacuum, or, as the Inspector aptly observes, “We don’t live alone.” It is so easy to get caught up in our own lives that we often forget how our actions can have a profound effect on the lives of those we come in contact with, and when those worlds do collide, it is how we respond that ultimately determine the kind of people we are.
Visually speaking, the set and costumes are both minimal and elegant. Brian Hahn (set design), and Jennie Richardson (costume design), both did an incredible job of conveying the idea of each character and their world without distracting from the show. The Blackbox is a smaller space, and I really appreciate the way that both the set and the costumes fit within its confines. The lighting (Jay M. Clark) was gentle and lent itself to the overall intrigue of the show, and even though none of the actors wore microphones, I never had a problem hearing or understanding anything they said. From a technical aspect, the show is solid.
I would absolutely recommend this incredible show, and congratulate the entire production staff, cast, and crew of An Inspector Calls on a stellar product.
Centerpoint Legacy Theater proudly presents An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley
Centerpoint Legacy Theater, Leishman Hall, 525 N 400 W, Centerville, UT
July 28-August 19, Monday, Thursday – Saturday 7:00 PM