Published in KPBS On Air Magazine July 1996
It was an old warhorse, a thriller that was done to death ever since its birth in 1946. Then, British director Stephen Daldry dusted it off, gave it a fabulous refurbishment, turned the darned thing inside out and voilà! A miraculous resurrection.
Since its 1993 re-appearance in London, “An Inspector Calls” has won 20 prestigious awards, including four Tonys and three Oliviers (the English Tony-equivalent).
When the show reached New York in 1994, Vincent Canby of the New York Times fairly danced on the page: “Not since “Angels in America” has Broadway had a nonmusical event as seriously exhilarating… This production is to conventional theater what electrical shock is to a dying heart.” Now, San Diegans get to see what all the hoopla is about. (“An Inspector Calls” at the California Center for the Arts-Escondido, July 19-21).
Well, on paper it would seem to be about a small, drawing-room (in this case, dining room) psychological mystery set in a fictitious Yorkshire industrial town in 1912. The family of a well-to-do manufacturer is celebrating the engagement of their daughter to the son of a wealthy business rival. An inspector enters to report the suicide of a smart, pretty, working-class girl. Gradually, each imperious guest is pressed to confess his/her own guilt and complicity in this unfortunate and gruesome death.
When he wrote the play in 1945, playwright-novelist-journalist J.B. Priestley wrapped his social commentary into the detective story. This has prompted some to call it a cautionary or morality tale with frankly socialist (or liberal humanist) leanings, replete with treatises on class inequity, hypocrisy, collective guilt and an urgent plea for social conscience and community responsibility. The message may be didactic, but it’s not outdated.
Looking back from the vantage point of post-WWII England, Priestley set the piece in guileless pre-WWI. But this new production plops the 1912 house into a rubble-strewn, 1980s, post-Thatcher (Read: post-Reagan) post-apocalyptic landscape.
The eerily stunning, outrageously inventive set has been hailed as one of the stars of the production. Scenic designer Ian MacNeil first shows the house, then spills out the contents and all its secrets. The domicile opens like a hinged dollhouse and later collapses like a house of cards. The shifting perspectives on the action, from long-shot to closeup to wide-angle, with suggestions of co-existing present, past and future, make for a very cinematic presentation, and it’s all underscored like a film (except the music is played live). The breathtaking special effects (unique for a straight play, though they’ve become “de rigueur” in musicals) include a heavy rainstorm that uses 175 gallons of water every night.
In the center of the maelstrom is the relentless, pugnacious, enigmatic, somewhat otherworldly Inspector Goole, who was played in London, on Broadway and now on tour by veteran British actor Kenneth Cranham. He took a little break in the middle, but by the time he finishes in August, he will have logged in 800 performances.
“It’s a thrilling but very difficult production,” he says in his impossibly English accent. (He was born in Scotland but has lived in London for most of his 51 years). “It never feels easy, never gets to be something you can just do without thinking. It’s like going back into the ring every time.”
During his 14-month hiatus, Cranham did an English TV pilot and a couple of adventure stories for ShowTime. While on location in the Yorkshire dales, he saw a church plaque commemorating Priestley and his locally scattered ashes, got a salvaged copy of the author’s 1984 memorial service, then sat in the old boy’s place in a favorite pub. “That made the hairs on my forearm dance,” reports the actor. And he brought that feeling with him when he re-joined the 10-month, 42-city North American “Inspector” tour in May for its last leg (L.A., San Diego, Seattle, and as he calls it “Sint Paul’s”).
This production helps to wrap up the second season of the $81 million California Center of the Arts, which is struggling to maintain its financial footing. The publicly-owned Center, well behind on its fundraising projections for the second year, has just hooked up with the City of Escondido for a joint evaluation of the Center’s operations, management and organizational structure. Rumors have been flying that the Center may ask the City to take control of some of its facilities, particularly the conference center, the 400-seat community theater and a portion of the education program. The Center wants to keep the museum and the potentially lucrative 1500-seat concert hall. Hopefully, like the manor-house in the play, the Center will only appear to be toppling, but will miraculously reconstruct itself.
Meanwhile, the inspector, as inquisitive offstage as on, was curious about the theater’s locale and stage size. Cranham was pleased. “The show works best in big theaters,” said the affable actor. “That amazing set really comes into its own.”
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.