A psychological thriller?
A “Downton Abbey”-esque period piece?
A morality tale?
“An Inspector Calls,” playing at the Florida Repertory Theatre’s mainstage is all that and more. Not only does it combine all of these genres but it checks all the boxes for good theater: it keeps you guessing, makes you laugh and also makes you think.
It also, at times, sent chills down my spine.
You might think a play set entirely in a dining room in 1910 England (with women in gowns and men in white tie and tails) would be a snooze, but you’d be wrong.
It starts slowly, but gradually picks up more and more speed, until it’s barreling like a runaway train downhill. I couldn’t wait for intermission to be over, to see what would happen next.
This J.B. Priestly play begins with the Birling family celebrating the engagement of their daughter Sheila (Ellyn Heald) to Gerald (a gallant Brendan Powers). She’s virginal and charming, in a white gauzy dress, while he strikes a dashing figure in his tux.
They’ve just finished dinner in a green-and-cream-colored dining room with wainscoting, fireplace, chandelier and heavy drapes with fringe (set design by Dennis C. Maulden.) The walls slant to a double-door upstage, the scene for more than one dramatic entrance. On either side of the room, behind the red brick walls, we can see the gray of factories; they also loom behind. But the house’s inhabitants are sheltered from the outside world.
The Birlings, and Gerald, are all prosperous and more than well satisfied with themselves.
Sybil (Kate Hampton) and Arthur (William McNulty) head the family, which in addition to Sheila includes a younger son, Eric (Cole Francum).
Eric is impetuous and undisciplined, but his parents seem to overlook his shortcomings. When we meet him he’s seated with his back to us. He sits askew on his chair. Sheila, we learn, has a temper.
Their father lectures them about how it’s not their job to look after others and help the poor and working poor; it’s a speech you could hear coming out of the mouth of Ebenezer Scrooge. But Mr. McNulty’s Arthur is more jolly and sociable.
The port, too, has been flowing freely on this happy occasion.
Then the maid (Bailey Tyler) announces that an inspector is at the door.
And once the police inspector (V Craig Heidenreich) steps into their dining room, their lives are irrevocably changed.
He’s an odd character, and I wasn’t sure what to make of Mr. Heidenreich’s performance, which seems sometimes mannered. He’s somewhat taciturn and yet walks around the dining room making pronouncements and asking questions as if they’re in a courtroom and he’s the chief prosecutor. He likes to poke his thumbs in his vest pockets and puff his chest out, resting far back on his heels.
At times he displays an odd smile, as if he’s toying with the others and enjoying himself. And the audience laughs, because we’re in on the joke with him; we realize things before the characters do and see how cleverly the inspector is laying a trap for them.
It seems as if everyone is hiding secrets they’d rather not reveal and this high-society family isn’t as proper as it initially appears.
Arthur is a factory owner, but becomes vindictive when his workers strike for slightly higher wages. He refuses them, putting profits above people, not realizing how much his employees struggle to live on the wages he gives them.
Sybil is gracious and appears kind, but as time passes, we see how self-righteous and un-Christian she truly is.
The inspector draws back the curtain on the hypocrisy of all the characters.
“An Inspector Calls,” which was first presented at the Old Vic in 1946, is like the flip side of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” released on film that same year.
Instead of seeing how small acts of kindness and thoughtfulness change people’s lives, we see how small — and larger — acts of neglect and cruelty harm people.
Director Michael Marotta — last seen acting at Florida Rep in “Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Story,” (playing, as he says, “everyone who wasn’t Rosemary,”) does a superb job with this production, winding the tension tighter and tighter. The incidental music (sound designer Katie Lowe) and lighting (Tyler M. Perry) are used sparingly, but to great effect.
Costume designer Stefanie Genda has clothed the characters in classy outfits of the time, befitting their roles in society and their ages. (The spats on teenage Eric are a nice touch. And Sybil is dressed almost like money herself, in gold.)
This is a true ensemble piece, with everyone at the top of his or her game. It’s so interesting to note the little touches these actors give their characters — a side look, the wringing of hands, a faltering half-step backwards. At times, they have the difficult task of expressing an emotion while simultaneously trying to hide it. They glean laughs or gasps from how they intone a single word or phrase.
And not to be as guilty as the Birlings, I want to also acknowledge the five actors who appear as “The Working Poor” at the beginning of the play. They are: Hunter Clarke, Thomas Hadzeriga, Bethany Mansfield, Kylie Gray Mask and Asher Van Meter.
Though set in 1910, the themes in “An Inspector Calls” are contemporary and argued about today. What is our responsibility to others, especially those who are poor and struggling? What is our responsibility to each other, period? Is politeness a sign of weakness? Is it ever OK to run roughshod over others emotionally?
I hope this doesn’t make the play seem preachier than it is, because “An Inspector Calls” is a fun, gripping night at the theater. It contains layer upon layer.
Suspenseful, powerful and slyly clever, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable rollercoaster ride of emotions. Hang on tightly and enjoy the twists and turns. ¦
“An Inspector Calls”
When: through Dec. 22
Where: Florida Repertory Theatre, 2268 Bay St. in the Arcade Theatre, downtown Fort Myers
Information: 239-332-4488 or www.floridarep.org