‘Inspector Calls’ has nice moments, but perplexing ones too

The experience is a noble attempt, and from time to time it certainly achieves its goals
A scene from "An Inspector Calls."
A scene from "An Inspector Calls."

Script. Directorial concept. Execution.

These are the three ingredients of a show that I keep in mind when reviewing. I thought of them as I watched Schenectady Civic’s “An Inspector Calls” on Friday. The production has many moments of pleasure but, on the whole, I came away perplexed and not wholly convinced.

This play by English author J. B. Priestley is from 1945. Assistant director Betsy Riley observes in a program note that the play “has been regarded as one of the most famous and explicit statements of socialism to be seen on the British stage.” 

Indeed, it is in part a critique of the class system that prevailed particularly before World War II as a wealthy family is implicated — morally, not legally — in the suicide of a young woman who used to work for them. Family members react in various ways to a mysterious inspector (Angelique Powell), who quizzes them about their connection to Eva (Carmen Lookshire).

Mr. Birling (Emmett Ferris) and Mrs. Birling ( Kim Wafer) are indignant; their daughter, Sheila (Josie Smith); their son, Eric (Marquis Heath); and Sheila’s fiancé, Gerald (JR Richards), however, start to question their contributions to Eva’s despair. They begin to think that caring about others might be their responsibility.

There are satisfying, Pirandello-esque touches to the script.

Director Patrick White has cast the play with African-American and Latino performers, and the conceit is that these actors (circa 1945) have gathered on a bare stage to put on the Priestley play. Thus it becomes a play within a play.

The themes of the play are universal and timeless enough — and theater is always about make-believe in any case — that the fact that they are playing white Brits in 1912 quickly becomes credible. (I don’t know if White had Caryl Churchill’s subversive “Cloud Nine” in mind, but this production can resonate that way.)

Some of White’s original touches work. I like the lovely singing by Lookshire, particularly the aptly placed “Someone to Watch Over Me.” In fact, Eva doesn’t appear in Priestley’s script, but her ghost-like presence here makes the young woman less abstract than she otherwise would be.

White’s choreography in a few places is evocative and well executed.

A curious decision is casting a woman as the male inspector.

The production is uneven, with surprisingly weak blocking. For instance, there are a few stretches when the performers are simply in a line across the stage. Some of the actors speak with their backs to us. And without furniture, the space is one-level.

On Friday there were a number of uncomfortable lapses when the actors went up on their lines, especially near the end, slowing the pace. No doubt such dead spots will disappear during the run.

Ferris believably makes Birling a pompous, unsavory guy. Wafer is convincingly imperious.  

Heath and Richards hit their marks and keep the energy up.

Smith’s Sheila properly grows into a sympathetic young woman, and the actress’s facial reactions are especially effective.

Powell’s presence is commanding. Whoever the inspector is supposed to be, Powell knows and takes charge with vocal and physical strength.

The experience is a noble attempt, and from time to time it certainly achieves its goals. And why else do we go to the theater but for that journey?

‘An Inspector Calls’

WHERE: Schenectady Civic Players, 12 S. Church St.
WHEN: Through Sunday, Feb. 4
MORE INFO: 518-382-2081, or

Categories: Entertainment

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