By William Gupton
This weekend featured the premier of the Willamette Theatre Department’s production of “An Inspector Calls” by John Boynton Priestley, and—in many ways it was a tremendous success. This production is a phenomenal opening to the department’s 2017-18 season, setting a strong precedent for the rest of the season.
“An Inspector Calls” takes place in England in 1912 in an age of corporate success and business prosperity at the expense of the working class. It follows the Birling family, who are at the top of this hierarchy due to the wealth and success of the father, Arthur Birling. It begins with a very jovial, bourgeoisie setting.
However, this opening is soon disrupted when an unfamiliar man by the name of Inspector Goole enters the home, bringing terrible news and dramatic conflict. Much of this conflict revolves around many of the pressing social issues of the age, while also providing an insightful look at problems in our own age.
This play manages to walk the fine line of tension between Downton Abbey style drama and an almost murder-mystery plot. It keeps the audience in that perfect balance between not totally understanding where the conflict is going while simultaneously providing them just enough information to try and piece together the events themselves. This tension is not an easy balance to maintain, but between the combinations of phenomenal acting, powerful direction and a touch of dramatic ambiance, it is captured excellently.
The cast itself displayed a masterful performance, featuring Kaitlyn Rickaby as the matron of the house, Akeylah Hernandez and William Bremer as her children, Alex Gordon as the hopeful soon to be son-in law, Piper St. Julien as the maid, William Forkin as the inspector who the play is named after and Willamette alumni Craig Pesti-Strobel as the father of the household. Not only did this cast carryout the beautiful tension of the show perfectly, they did so while taking up twentieth century English accents through it all.
Throughout the production, most of the actors are given brilliant moments to stand out and display a wide range of emotions and talents, though there are a few stand outs. A clear example was the inspector himself, which is not surprising given the fact that the play derives its name from his presence in the show. His aims are left mostly vague throughout the show until his exit, and this allows him to control the tension in each scene as the rest of the characters are left trying to figure him out. Both of the eldest Birlings, Arthur and Sybil, also display moments of brilliance in their battling with the inspector, while their children and future son-in-law also bring much of the pressure in the show to life.
Additionally, the set and direction of the show are of the highest caliber. The set often is my favorite feature in theTheatre department’s work, as their black box theatre allows them to completely reinvent the room every time I enter it, and never once have I been disappointed in the slightest. The set for “An Inspector Calls” is designed like a single living room in an upper-class home, but with hollowed out walls to allow the audience to look in from all sides. This set enables the audience to view the production almost like one observes a fish in a bowl. The set designer and director, Christopher L. Harris, once again put together a set that demonstrated the magic of stagecraft, and the stage team put together a wonderful surprise shakeup to the foundations of it in the last moments of the show.
In combination with the stage was the direction and ambiance that constructed the atmosphere of the production in such a way that I often got chills while sitting in the audience. Offstage featured an upright string bass, singing glasses and a live soprano singer, all of which filled the background sounds of the show to add additional shifts in mood with every moment.
In conclusion, I believe this to be one of the best productions I have seen from Willamette Theatre, and I highly encourage anyone to go and see it. The show was intensely entertaining and thought-provoking, highlighting some powerful issues that were a part of the world it takes place in, but are just as real as in ours.
“An Inspector Calls” will be running until Oct. 14 in the M. Lee Pelton Theatre on campus.