We don’t live alone. Our lives intricately touch so many others. Strangers on the street, shop girls assisting us with things, women of the town, factory girls hard at work, they are all living breathing human beings. And what gives us the right to decide that a simple action on our end does not impact their lives irrevocably? The fact that our station may be above theirs? The fact that we are of importance and they are of little consequence? All these delicious and sordid questions come unraveled in J. B. Priestley’s psychological thriller An Inspector Calls, now playing at Everyman Theatre as the opening show of their 25th Anniversary Season. Directed by Noah Himmelstein, this gripping drama slowly burbles to a suspenseful conclusion, the dramatic result of which is as shocking as a true strike to the gut.
Atmospheric involvement can take even the simplest of scripts from ordinary to mesmerizing and Set Designer Timothy R. Mackabee’s work in this production is no exception to that rule of practice. Designing an exceptionally haunting set that consumes the space from the inside out, Mackabee’s work sprawls elegantly across the still-intimate stage of the Everyman space, creeping along into a classical dining room apropos of a wealthy class family home in the North Midlands of 1912. The striking juxtaposition of Mackabee’s set against Lighting Designer Jay A. Herzog’s chandeliers fabricates a spine-tingling notion that all is not as it seems within the Birling household.
Herzog’s work is an astonishing tool used throughout the performance to create dramatic shifts in mood, guiding the audience along into moments of memory when certain characters begin to extrapolate their recollections on the matter that the Inspector has come to investigate. Fraught with subtly and hints of purples for those low-lit moments, it’s Herzog’s lighting that creates visual cues so emotionally heavy that they nearly become palpable during their sharp shifts. Polishing off the design elements in the production is Sound Designer Elisheba Ittoop. Though at times virtually non-existent, the delicacy with which Ittoop imbues the performance with swells of sound becomes the hallmark of heightened dramatic moments. Ittoop’s particular use of crescendos to augment these striking moments is what makes the sound design stand out the most.
Director Noah Himmelstein unfurls the very essence of an industrial era psychological thriller with the way he guides this production through the plot. Carefully constructing walls of attitude and airs among the intimate cast, Himmelstein ensures that each dramatic reveal, each uncovered suspicion is revealed at the height of its peaking intrigue. Drawing the focus to the ensemble nature of the performance, Himmelstein works the cast as a collective and simultaneously as cogs in a large machine. The suspense built into intricately crafted pauses speaks volumes where the playwright’s words do not, and the deliberate movement and at times lack thereof creates poignant points of contemplation as the mysterious plot unfolds into its shocking conclusion.
Sybil Birling (Deborah Hazlett) is of the stiff upper lip society that one expects from upper-class British women of her age. Hazlett has a tight reserve on her emotional display, even once she’s undergone her own personal interrogation from the Inspector. Never faltering in her austere mannerisms and physical rigidity, Hazlett makes a compelling case of cold-hearted more than evident once a great deal of things find themselves to be revealed.
Gerald Croft (Jamison Foreman) is the simplistic lover opposite the ingénue type Shelia (Sophie Hinderberger.) Foreman gives a deceptively easy performance as the young fiancée, though his confessions are deeply troubled and delivered in a most subdued fashion. His initial interactions with Hinderberger’s character as stereotypically doting, but as the play evolves and the circumstances shift, his performance does as well; a perfect match for the character’s changing moods. Hinderberger’s breathy voice plays well into the stock character, particularly when she finds herself prone to fits of hysteria.
It’s Hinderberger’s interactions and overall responses to her character’s brother, Eric Birling (Josh Adams) that are most fascinating. There are moments shared between the pair during Act II which are damned exasperating to behold, particularly as they bristle against the more sullen and mysterious attitudes of those remaining in the room at the time. Adams is a precocious youth whose attitude burbles ferociously at the forefront of his delivery. Even in moments of recollection his attitude takes the spotlight over his physicality or his affected accent. Delving into the deliciously wound twists of Priestley’s work, Adams fits the bill for most mysterious of them all.
Leading the family is patriarch Arthur Birling (Bruce Randolph Nelson.) Consistently going head to head and toe to toe with the rude and roaring Inspector Goole (Chris Genebach), Nelson holds his own in an authoritative showdown of sorts wherein class and charm are held to the highest of esteem in his portrayal and brute force and verbal desecration are favored by Genebach. The pair create a striking team upon the stage, particularly when Nelson attempts to put his foot down at Genebach’s absurd insistences and overall peculiar fashion of handling the investigation. Genebach is roguish; his performance setting nerves and teeth on edge as he interrogates the Birling family in his unusual fashion.
It is with great trepidation that either of Genebach’s or Nelson’s performances are spoke upon in too much detail for fear of giving away so much of the brilliant surprises that lie in store for the audience. When they do find themselves at verbal odds over certain subject matters, they are passionately engaged with one another and vehemently standing their ground in the only ways that their characters deem necessary. To say that Nelson’s final line is delivered with exacting precision and such haunting seriousness as to cause the whole room to tremble in shock would not come close to scratching the surface of justice in his performance.
An utterly riveting ride, wherein Himmelstein and the company make what could easily be a mundane drawing room drama into a titular and captivating thriller of epic proportions. An Inspector Calls is an exceptionally promising start to the 25th Anniversary Season at Everyman Theatre.
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
An Inspector Calls plays through October 11, 2015 at Everyman Theatre— 315 W. Fayette Street in the West End Entertainment District of Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-2208 or purchase them online.