Prior to last Thursday, I had seen 40 productions at Mt. Carroll's Timber Lake Playhouse, and somehow, during all those visits, I had never been there when it rained. Yet rain it did on Thursday, and it rained hard, and I couldn't imagine more fitting weather for the venue's opening-night performance of An Inspector Calls, an eerie, succulent psycho-drama (with laughs) that made the literal storm clouds a spectacular match for the figurative ones on-stage.
Within the first seconds of author J.B. Priestley's 1946 play, you could sense the audience enjoying the unplanned marriage of director Chuck Smith's presentation and Mother Nature's effects. Opening, in near-darkness, with sound designer Lucas Pawelski's re-creation of an old-timey radio broadcast - a gong-punctuated invitation to solve a forthcoming mystery - An Inspector Calls officially begins with six people at a table. The setting is a rural manse in 1912 England, and a congratulatory toast is being given by proprietor Arthur Birling (John Chase), whose daughter Sheila (Caroline Murrah) is newly engaged to business tyro Gerald Croft (Gabriel Brown). Also on hand are Arthur's wife Sybil (Danielle Brothers), their son Eric (Cody Jolly), and their maid Edna (Bethany Fay), and while the mood in the production's early scenes is festive, there are hints - Arthur's too-aggressive bonhomie, Eric's constant swigs of port - that all might not be merry in this household. And then the doorbell rings.
Enter Inspector Goole (Grant Brown), a blunt, fastidious figure with perfect posture whose arrival felt as deliciously ominous as the heavy rain landing on Timber Lake's rooftop. Delivering news of a local girl's violent suicide, Goole suggests that her death may have been caused, at least in part, by one or more members of the gathered party, and asks if he might question them about their possible connections to the deceased. What transpires, then, is consequently less a whodunnit than a juicy who-also-dunnit, with the Birlings' and Croft's initial civility giving way to regret, recrimination, and moral rot, all exacerbated by the lingering question of just who, or what, the strangely omniscient Inspector Goole actually is. (It's impossible, after all, to ignore the homophone of his surname.)
Theatrical mysteries of this sort live or die on the strengths of their actors; ideally, characters should remain suspect even when you're certain you know everything there is to know about them. And Smith, whose stage compositions are beautifully rendered, has a humdinger cast assembled for An Inspector Calls. That ever-great Timber Lake veteran Chase is sensationally pompous here and has scenes of frightening discord with Jolly, whose early, bitchy insouciance morphs, wrenchingly, into abject self-loathing. Gabriel Brown - Joseph in the venue's recent Technicolor Dreamcoat - lets a touching guilt trickle through his charming geniality, and Murrah, in the role that won Jane Adams a 1994 Tony, deserves an award of her own for her seemingly delicate Sheila emerging as the determinedly sensible, and funny, heart of the piece. (On Thursday, Murrah's best bit came when Sybil insisted that her daughter not listen to the inspector's vile story, and Sheila blurted, "But you're forgetting that I'm supposed to be engaged to the hero of it!")
As Goole, Grant Brown is fantastically inscrutable, his insinuating accusations and schoolmarm priggishness occasionally interrupted by bursts of self-righteous anger. Brothers has such a wondrously intimidating lower register, and is so thrillingly imperious, that you smile at her presence even when Sybil is at her most monstrous; despite its shared setting, Priestley's play isn't Downton Abbey, but in Brothers, at least, this production does have its own Maggie Smith. (Sybil's elegant burgundy gown is also the finest of costumer Kathleen Embrey's superb period creations.) Fay's furtive glances, meanwhile, keep you guessing about Edna's possible role in the story - not that you'll be getting any clues from me.
A spiky melodrama with the soul of a thriller, An Inspector Calls is a first-rate guessing game ... although I wish I didn't exert quite so much energy trying to guess the meaning behind scenic designer Nathan Dahlkemper's fascinatingly artificial drawing-room set, with its intentionally unfinished floorboards, exposed brick, and nonfunctional grandfather clock. (Does this clearly symbolic set represent the decay of the British upper class? The peeling away of artifice? The ugliness beneath surface beauty? All of the above?) But I absolutely loved the question of the show's final moments and tableau, which, as I was leaving the auditorium, led one patron ahead of me to say, "I totally got that," and her friend to reply, "I didn't get it at all." I'm not sure I did, either, but days afterward, I'm still having a blast trying to.
An Inspector Calls runs at the Timber Lake Playhouse (8215 Black Oak Road, Mt. Carroll) through June 28, and more information and tickets are available by calling (815)244-2035 or visiting TimberLakePlayhouse.org.