Chicago Theater Review: AN INSPECTOR CALLS (Remy Bumppo at Greenhouse Theatre Center)

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by Lawrence Bommer on December 10, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


Taut, true and richly wrought, this 1945 potboiler by unashamed socialist playwright J.B. Priestley remains, three generations later, a clarion call to a new century. Juicy with relentless revelations about a patrician clan who rule provincial Brumley, England, it’s just as much a wake-up call for social responsibility and individual accountability as Dickens’ equally accusatory A Christmas Carol from a century before.

Isabel Ellison, Roderick Peeples, Luke Daigle, Greg Matthew Anderson and Lia Mortensen in Remy Bumppo's AN INSPECTOR CALLS.

Given David Darlow’s crackling revival for Remy Bumppo, in 2013 An Inspector Calls instantly indicts our latest mutations of corporate crime, specifically the immoral indifference of the top 1% to their fellow citizens. Since some things never change, some plays never should.

As the title suggests, the action erupts as a certain (or uncertain) Inspector Goole (Nick Sandys doing “J’accuse!” in a hundred different ways) interrupts the Birling family’s very premature party. They’re celebrating the business-minded engagement of their heiress Sheila (spitfire Isabel Ellison) to Gerald (smooth-tongued Greg Matthew Anderson), scion to the Croft family fortune. To paterfamilias Arthur (Roderick Peeples in cutthroat capitalist mode), this liaison is more a merger than a marriage–but then love can be lucrative.

Roderick Peeples and Lia Mortensen in Remy Bumppo's AN INSPECTOR CALLS.

That’s as happy as they get: Poole bears down on them like the wrath of God. He’s enraged over the day’s tragedy: A young girl has killed herself, hideously, by swallowing industrial cleanser, her innards eaten out by the painful poison. Pursuing his ruthless interrogation, the wraithful detective systematically implicates the entire Birling clan, as well as arrogant Gerald, in a cumulative crime made up of cascading cruelties inflicted on needy and hungry Eva Smith.

Nick Sandys and Lia Mortensen in Remy Bumppo's AN INSPECTOR CALLS.

It turns out that this pretty factory girl was discharged by Arthur for daring to seek 25 shillings a week (barely enough to live on). Daughter Sheila got her fired from her next job for simply smiling in, to Sheila, an insulting manner. Hypocritical Gerald and the Birling heir–hard-drinking, embezzling Eric (Luke Daigle)–exploited Eva exactly as rich horndogs do vulnerable poor girls, driven to prostitution just to eat. Finally, imperious matriarch Sybil Birling (Lia Mortensen, a dragon lady with attitude) accidentally curses her boy as she explains why her charity denied Eva even a shred of help.

Greg Matthew Anderson, Luke Daigle and Isabel Ellison in Remy Bumppo's AN INSPECTOR CALLS.

In short, Priestley creates an allegory that’s a non-negotiable crash course in industrial abuse, social neglect, and individual perfidy. The half-baked hope here is that at least the Birling children can still feel shame, the start of growing a conscience. The coincidence that five wicked deeds are visited on the same person hardly matters, since they stand for so many more.

Isabel Ellison, Roderick Peeples, Greg Matthew Anderson, Lia Mortensen and Nick Sandys in Remy Bumppo's AN INSPECTOR CALLS.

But Priestley doesn’t stop with this moral bill of attainder. His crafty plot contains two more twists: The action lurches like a runaway roller-coaster from accusations to recriminations to extenuations to justifications and again to indictments. It’s a brilliant theatrical thrill ride. Darlow’s deft staging fully exploits its every twist and turn. Once more, as with their earlier expose of upper-class skullduggery The Voysey Inheritance by Granville-Barker, Remy Bumppo serves up a delicious evening of thinking theater.

photos by Johnny Knight

An Inspector Calls
Remy Bumppo at Greenhouse Theatre Center
scheduled to end on January 12, 2014
for tickets call 773-404-7336 or visit

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit

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