By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 45 minutes with two 10-minute intermissions
What kind of person are you? Do you have empathy for others or do you look out for number one? How diverse is your circle of friends, if at all? These are all rhetorical questions and no one has an obligation to answer, but they are certainly questions one might ask him or herself occasionally. Sometimes, we keep the answers to ourselves, even from our own families and when the answers are revealed, they can, sometimes, be earth shattering. In Laurel Mill Playhouse’s latest offering, An Inspector Calls by JP Priestley, Directed by Ilene Chalmers, with Set Design by Ilene Chalmers and Costume Design by Linda Swann, try to answer these questions that are raised by a visiting, mysterious Inspector as they pertain to a particular family who seem to live in their own little bubble in the Gilded Age England. The complex story has one common denominator… a dead girl in the morgue… but did one of these fine folks kill her?
If you haven’t attended a performance at Laurel Mill Playhouse, walking in, the intimate space is quite inviting and there’s really not a bad seat in the house. It’s old, but it’s comfortable. The Set Design for this production, by Ilene Chalmers (one of the many hats she wore for this production), is simple but functional. A few pieces of elegant furniture are used to represent a dining room of well-to-do English family and the furnishing choices do this quite well. This piece is a mystery/thriller and I understand that it is a darker piece, but the curious choice for simple black walls started getting to me as the production moved on. Paintings and prints adorned the walls, but there was no color with was a bit distracting, oddly enough. Otherwise, Chalmers’ design is precise and fits the piece very well.
Costume Design by Linda Swann is impeccable. This isn’t s large ensemble (only six characters) but each is costumed brilliantly. Swann’s attention to detail is splendid as the gentlemen are fitted with formal tuxedos that (mostly) fit well and the Inspector appropriately dressed in a plain, but neat suit that fits the part perfectly. The gowns for the ladies are true to the era, formal, and gorgeous, including the maid’s outfit and precious maid cap. Kudos to Swann for a job well done.
Ilene Chalmers, among many other duties, according to the program, takes the helm of this piece and it’s clear she has a complete vision for and comprehension of this twisting story. Her casting is superb and she tells the story without a lot of bells and whistles, which I can immensely appreciate. She sticks to the text in which the piece was written but still presents her vision clearly. Though there is a Dialect Coach listed in the program (Richard Atha-Nicholls), some of the actors are definitely struggling but not so much that it deters from the production as a whole. Overall, Chalmers produces a commendable presentation of this piece.
The entire ensemble works well together and the chemistry is absolutely apparent and all are giving 100% effort in their performances. Tracy Dye, as Enda, the maid to the Birling family has but a handful of lines, and some of them only one word, but her performance is top-notch. Though she is a character of few words, her expressions and gestures tell her story and Dye makes it clear her character is of a different world than those for whom she works. Her non-verbal skills make for a terrific performance.
Taking on the role of Eric Birling, the dependent-but-wants-to-be-independent son of the Birlings, is played by Kyle Kelley. Of the entire ensemble, Kelley is probably the weakest but that’s not to say he doesn’t do an admirable job. The character himself is nervous and anxious but that seems to be the only emotion Kelley emotes throughout the entire production. His darting eyes and shaky voice is appropriate for some of the dialogue but overall, he portrays Eric Birling as nothing more than a bag of nerves when he could bring more out of the character. Again, this isn’t to say Kelley gives an inadequate performance for it does seem to have a great grasp of his character and his tribulations.
Matt Leyendecker takes on the role of Gerald Croft, the fiancé to the Shiela, the Birling daughter, and his character is spot on. He embodies this character wholly, though I see Gerald Croft as a slightly younger man. Leyendecker certainly portrays an air of a man of the upper class during the time setting of the piece and it plays nicely. He gives a strong, confident performance that works well for this character.
The role of Sheila Birling is tackled by JilliAnne McCarty and she plays this role with gusto and is a highlight of this production. She has a good comprehension of her character and the change in views she portrays is superb. She gives us just enough emotion to express her anguish while still upholding her elegance as an upper-class lady. This character is desperately trying to make the others see the err of their ways (while all along admitting her own) and one can see the desperation in her face and gestures. Overall, McCarty gives an outstanding performance.
The matriarch, Sybil Birling, is portrayed by Sam David and she is the epitome of the sophisticated, rich mother of the Gilded Age (or a little after, rather). David takes this role, chews it up, and spits out a phenomenal performance. Her non-verbal work as well as her delivery is exquisite making for one of the standout performances in this piece.
Jeff Dunne takes on the character of Arthur Birling, the patriarch of the Birling family and he does so with 100% commitment. Dunne has a very strong stage presence and makes one take notice. He gets his character and understands the burdens of this man as he tries to work out a way to keep his family safe, even if it’s just from gossip. The air he portrays is absolutely appropriate for the character and he is consistent throughout.
Rounding out the cast is the title character (kind of), Inspector Goole, played efficiently by Tom Piccin. Aside from the lack of the British accent the rest of the cast is using, Piccin gives a strong, authentic performance. The authenticity in his performance is the lack of emotion and level headed-ness he presents as he interrogates each person in his quest for the truth, just as any real-life inspector or officer would have, putting his emotions aside to get to the facts of the matter. Piccin keeps his piercing glare consistent throughout the production and when his emotions are finally at a point where he cannot contain them any longer, it’s jarring, as it should be, and effective for the character. Major kudos to Piccin for a job well done.
Final thought… An Inspector Calls is a mysterious, intense look into ourselves as human beings as one part of a bigger organism. It forces us to ask questions about our own morals and ways of thinking. The production is well presented and the ensemble works quite well together to tell this cautionary tale carefully. With (mostly) authentic performances and a simple but very appropriate set, it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re in the Laurel area!
This is what I thought of Laurel Mill Playhouse’s production of An Inspector Calls… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!
An Inspector Calls will play through October 1 at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main Street, Laurel, MD . For tickets, call 301-617-9906 or purchase them online.
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