The line between a criminal act and morally objectionable behavior can be a thin one, but the space surrounding that line is ripe for theater.
The Hampton Theatre Company’s opening play of their 31st season, J.B. Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls,” makes great use of this rich territory, serving up a cautionary story of the interconnected web of humanity, disguised in a rich package of intrigue.
As the aristocratic Birling family sits down to celebrate the engagement of their daughter on an April evening in the British North Midlands in 1912, a police inspector with the improbable name of “Goole” intrudes on their festivities with the tale of a young woman, Eva Smith, who has just that night killed herself by drinking a disinfectant, burning up her insides.
Inspector Goole seems, like Peter Falk’s Columbo, to already know exactly what has happened. It’s the coaxing out of confessions, the why-did-it, that keeps the audience in suspense in this well-crafted play, which seems to have benefited from director Sarah Hunnewell’s work tightening up the script.
It turns out, we find, that every member of this little engagement party had played some role in Eva Smith’s death, and all turn in fine performances, obviously enjoying their roles.
Edward A. Brennan, as Inspector Goole, is, well, ghoulish, with a stiff neck and his hands held almost locked against his sides, a penetrating stare boring through each member of the household in turn, each in succession even more afraid as he turns his eyes to them for questioning.
The family patriarch, Arthur Birling, played with aplomb by Daren Kelly, is a stiff industrialist, with no apologies and no second thoughts for his actions in an every-man-for-himself world.
His wife Sybil, finely played with haughty indigence by Susan Galardi, also has no apologies for anything she’s done.
It’s their children, the impressionable ones, who watch in horror as the story of Ms. Smith’s short and sad life unfolds. Each of them, in turn, seems to have become a different person over the course of the evening, as they each learn how their own careless actions helped drive Ms. Smith to her death.
Sheila Birling, played by Amanda Griemsmann, seems to become a ghost herself as she learns that her careless words to a shopkeeper had a role in Ms. Smith’s death. At the start of the show, she seems a careless, flirty lass, but by the end she becomes the conscience of this sad crew.
Her new fiancé, Gerald Croft, played by Anthony Famulari, seems to age years in the telling of his role in Ms. Smith’s suicide.
Spencer Scott as Sheila’s younger brother Eric seems a carefree, wisecracking young man, but when he is revealed as a secret drunk with perhaps the largest secrets of all, his parents waste no time building a web of denial and excuses for his bad behavior.
All this intrigue and moralizing sounds heavy, but this play is really quite funny. It’s funny because of the way we can clearly see the absurdity of all of our fragile conditions through the lens of theater — and how we can all view poverty, social class, alcoholism and adultery through eyes clouded with denial when our own lives are thrown into the stakes.
The set is a great metaphor: cartoon-scale cornices hold up a house built on a lie, the doorway is like a huge coffin, oversized picture frames to the rear of the stage cast unseen ancestors’ eyes on the action, the picture above the mantel isn’t a picture at all but a huge frosted mirror, the oft-poured bottle of port on the center table overshadows the bottle of whiskey on a sideboard until the characters turn to the side when the questioning gets rough.
The curtain opens to the chorus of “Rule, Britannia.” The story, like the mighty unsinkable Titanic, which sank on the evening the events of this play took place, is that of something too big to fail, something which, in the end, couldn’t help but be a victim of its own bravado.
We know how the story of the Titanic ended, but the ending of this play is just as suspenseful a liferaft tale. It’s well worth taking in.
“An Inspector Calls” runs through Nov. 8 at the Quogue Community Hall on Jessup Avenue. Showtimes are Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.