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By Sue Merrell
"An Inspector Calls," which opened Friday at Hope Summer Repertory Theatre in Holland, is set a century ago in Edwardian England, yet some of the discussion seems right out of current election speeches.
Written in 1945 by British dramatist J. B. Priestly, the play is often considered a debate between capitalism and socialism, especially on the issue of individual responsibility. The story takes place in the dining room of a wealthy mill owner, Arthur Birling (Chip Duford). The family has gathered to celebrate the engagement of daughter Sheila (Susanna Stahlmann) to Gerald Croft (Russell Jonas), the son of another mill owner.
Although the family members are joyous, director John Tammi foreshadows the upcoming drama with well-timed crashes of thunder. Friday's audience laughed at the erroneous predictions of optimistic Arthur who describes the new world of 1912, with "no chance of war" because business has everything running so smoothly. He brags about a new "positively unsinkable" ship – no doubt the Titanic – and blusters about self-reliance and making your own way.
With ominous foreboding, a man in a trench coat and hat stands outside beneath a streetlight, watching this happy scene. He soon is introduced as Inspector Goole (Will Haden), who has come to question the family about the suicide of a poor, working class girl.
At first it seems the family has only a tangential relationship to the girl, who worked at Birling's mill but was fired 18 months earlier as a strike organizer. As the pushy inspector continues his prodding, it's revealed that every member of the family, including the snooty mother Sybil (Aleisha Force) and drunken son Eric (John Telfer), have had some negative impact on the girl in the past year.
Just when you think the revelations have reached their peak, and the inspector delivers a scathing speech about our responsibility for each other, the play makes a surprising turn. The characters and the audience get a chance to reevaluate everything, choosing to accept responsibility for contributing to the plight of others, or shift the blame yet again. And that's not the final twist.
Although the script is grossly overwritten and dawdles too much with each revelation, Priestly makes some good points. It's intriguing that the play seems to mirror the current political discussion about whether self-made businessmen made it on their own or with the help of society.
Set designer Rob Tintoc has designed a beautiful raised dining room with welcoming candles burning on the table. The action spills down onto a balcony and then onto the cobblestone "street" of the thrust stage. The rolling thunder of Ryan Mutton's sound design creates almost a horror film atmosphere. Sound is used to accent points in the dialogue, such as a clink of silverware against china that sounds the alarm that the fiance, Gerald Croft, is also connected to the dead girl. Jessica Leslie's costumes are wonderfully opulent for the Birling family and so unassumingly plain for the maid, Edna.
As always at Hope, the performances are strong, even though the style of this play is a bit melodramatic. Friday's opening night audience offered an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Good, thought-provoking dramas are rare in this age of reality TV and YouTube videos. This one is worth seeing.
SHOW DETAILS: Hope Summer Repertory Theatre's "An Inspector Calls" continues at Dewitt Theatre, 141 E. 12th St., Holland. Plays in rotating repertory through Aug. 9. Tickets: $12-21. For in formation: 616-395-7890 or www.hope.edu/hsrt.
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