‘Inspector Calls’ still timely at Stanford

Even though J.B. Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls” is set in Brumley, England, in 1912, it could just as easily be set in the United States in 2014.

Its condemnation of an elitist attitude that disregards the needs of the less privileged is as relevant today as it was then. Stanford Repertory Theater (formerly Stanford Summer Theater) makes that point clear in its excellent production directed by Rush Rehm.

Priestley’s original, written in the winter of 1944-45, near the end of World War II, was in three acts and ran for more than two hours. Rehm apparently is using the streamlined, 90-minute Royal National Theatre adaptation by director Stephen Daldry, which won four 1994 Tony Awards and came to San Francisco in 1996.

The action takes place in the drawing room of the wealthy Birling family. They’re celebrating the engagement of daughter Sheila (Kiki Bagger) to Gerald Croft (Ethan Wilcox). His father’s firm is the chief rival to Sheila’s father’s firm. Her father, the socially and financially ambitious Arthur (James Carpenter), foresees a successful business alliance in their romantic relationship.

Joining the celebration are Sheila’s mother, Sybil (Courtney Walsh), and brother, Eric (Andre Amarotico).

Their evening is interrupted by the arrival of Inspector Goole (Weston Gaylord) of the Brumley police. He says that a young woman has committed suicide by swallowing disinfectant, leading to an agonizing death.

Their reaction, although horrified, amounts to “So what? This has nothing to do with us.” Inspector Goole disagrees, and proceeds to show how actions by each person led to her final desperate act.

Her downfall started two years earlier when she was working in Arthur’s factory. He fired her because she led a campaign to raise his workers’ wages. He said that if he paid his workers more, his profits would drop.

Later, she was working in a fashionable women’s clothing store when Sheila demanded that she be fired because of a perceived impertinence. When Gerald and then Eric met her, she was desperately poor. Each man helped her for a bit, but Gerald abandoned her, and she broke off with Eric. Finally, she went to a committee that helps poor women, but her request was refused by Sybil, the committee head.

Hence, they see how each one bore some responsibility for the woman’s fate. Shortly thereafter, however, they suspect that what Goole has told them isn’t true and that he isn’t who he says he is.

The elder Birlings and Gerald are relieved and readily resume their elitist attitudes. However, Sheila and Eric seem transformed by their feelings of guilt. The audience is left to ponder who Goole (rhymes with ghoul) really is and why he arrived that evening.

As is true with Stanford Rep’s summer productions, this one features both seasoned, professional actors alongside students. The professionals here are Carpenter and Walsh, who so ably portray the parents and their sense of privilege. The students do an excellent job of bringing out the nuances of their characters. The cast is completed by another student, Jenna Wisch, as the Birlings’ maid.

Production values are high with period costumes by Connie Strayer and lighting by Dan Wadleigh. Erik Flatmo’s dining room set features an ample dining table, sideboard and grandfather clock, which shows the correct time.

In today’s terms, one might say that the people in the Birlings’ dining room represent the 1 percent. Therefore, it’s appropriate that this production is a part of the Ethics of Wealth series presented by Stanford’s Ethics in Society program.

It’s both theatrically rewarding and intellectually intriguing.

“An Inspector Calls” will continue in Piggott Theater (Memorial Auditorium), 551 Serra Mall, Stanford, through May 24. For tickets and information, call (650) 725-5838 or visit http://taps.stanford.edu/

About the Author

Judy RichterJudy reviews San Francisco Bay Area theater and writes feature articles about activities of the Stanford women's basketball team and Fast Break Club. A longtime Bay Area journalist, she is retired from the San Francisco Chronicle, where she was a writer and copy editor.View all posts by Judy Richter →