An Inspector Calls
by John Stoltenberg
J. B. Priestley’s classic An Inspector Calls—a drawing-room drama set in England in 1912 and written there in 1944—has landed in DC with uncanny currency. Now at Sidney Harman Hall in a touring production first staged in London a quarter century ago, An Inspector Calls plays like a commentary on our times so politically pertinent one might suppose the playwright was clairvoyant.
There is a lot that’s buzzworthy about the show besides its contemporary resonance. The actors, who have just come off a UK tour, are uniformly superb. The stagecraft is eye-popping; it includes nighttime rain, a dank cobblestone exterior where street urchins run about, and a posh Victorian house that opens to its interior like a brightly lit jewel box.
The suspenseful story unspools like a classy whodunnit. The plot is set in motion when a London police officer arrives at an upscale home to investigate the recent suicide of an impoverished young woman. One by one, he questions the wealthy family members, and one by one they are each implicated in the poor woman’s death. As the mysteries of how, when, why, and how are revealed, the audience’s attention is ever more riveted.
With the investigation gathering force, the play’s theme gathers steam. Dramatic tension builds sharply in the harsh contrast in circumstances between haves and have-nots. The young woman who died by suicide becomes a stand-in for all society’s dispossessed. Supernumeraries dressed as down-and-outs mass in mute witness. And the play shines an ever more glaring light on the responsibility of the privileged to the village of people who are left poor in pursuit of profit.
The wonder is that a play written in another country three quarters of a century ago arrives in our nation’s capital just now—at this very moment when there is a life-or-death conversation going on among elected suckups to the owning class, who just cut taxes for the super rich, about how threadbare they can make the social net.
An Inspector Calls comes calling on our collective conscience right on time. Don’t miss it.
Running Time: About one hour 45 minutes, with no intermission.
An Inspector Calls plays through December 23, 2018, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, performing at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-547-1122, or go online.