WCT's 'Inspector' pays attention to details
Superior cast gives Priestley mystery classic treatment
I can't remember the last time the thick, blood-red curtains at Waukesha Civic Theatre were closed before the start of a show.
Normally, the lights are dim on the set and when the characters take their places, the lights illuminate the scene.
Perhaps it was fitting for this classic J.B. Priestley play, "An Inspector Calls," to open in the more traditional way.
It was the first of many good moves made by WCT.
In the hands of a lesser community theater group, this show could turn into a tedious talky. Instead, the mystery is well-crafted and captivating under the direction of local theater veteran Carol Dolphin.
What elevates this show is how well each actor defines his/her character so that the audience feels they are real - maybe even like someone they know - and not just ciphers delivering Priestley's message.
"An Inspector Calls" takes place in the parlor of the Birlings, a well-to-do family in an industrial town in England. The year is 1912, just before World War I.
When the show opens, the Birlings - Arthur (Ralph Frattura) and Sybil (Mary Rynders) - are celebrating the engagement of their daughter Sheila ((Allison Chicorel) to Gerald (James Boylan). Also present is the Birlings' son, Eric (Michael Elftman). We learn a lot about the family in those opening moments - Arthur is opinionated, self-righteous and boastful. He fancies himself a smart, tough businessman and brags about his stature in the community as he lectures his future son-in-law. In themeantime, Eric skirts the sidelines of the scenes, drinking too much, out of the family's circle and out of his father's favor.
Out of the blue, the maid Edna (Cindy Velcheck) announces that a police inspector is at the door. And the congenial family immediately turns sour.
The inspector (Ralph M. Garcia) delivers news of a young woman's suicide. At first, no one knows why the family is being questioned, but gradually the inspector uncovers information that shows how each knew the woman in some way. In the process, family secrets are revealed and family dynamics drastically change as each learns how their actions affected this woman. But the real mystery is, Who is this inspector?
"We all started so confident and pleased with ourselves, until he started asking questions," says Sheila.
While Gerald reasons with the inspector that they are "respectable citizens, not dangerous people … or criminals," the inspector replies, "There's not much difference."
The show is carefully constructed, with each character revealing an unsavory side during the inspector's questioning. The ramifications of their actions are clearly stated as the inspector admonishes, "We don't live alone. We are members of one body. We're responsible for each other."
It would be easy for this homily - sort of a "treat others as you would have others treat you" - to become preachy. But Dolphin has assembled a cast that really draws in the audience. Almost more important than the characters speaking, are those reacting to what the characters are saying.
Chicorel's Sheila goes from girlish gaiety during her engagement celebration to bitter disappointment as her fiance's past is revealed. The withering looks she plants on Gerald as he explains his indiscretions speak just as loudly as the character speaking.
And though there is virtually no action in the play, the actors' constant movements - as they pace in nervousness, or just to think more clearly - helps to quickly move the story forward. The audience is kept entertained watching the characters interact, gauging their integrity as they speak and honing in on their expressions as others speak. Body language; looks of indignation, surprise or horror; exasperated grunts and groans buoyed every scene.
Whenever the inspector revealed a bit of damning evidence on opening night, the offending character reacted enough to be seen in the last row, yet didn't overact. That is a tightrope to maneuver for even the most accomplished actor.
Perhaps the most difficult role is that of the head of the house, Arthur Birling. Frattura maintains the character's stuffiness and self-righteousness throughout.
Garcia as the inspector is like a wasp at a picnic - creating a stir wherever he lands. His character, perhaps, could have been a little more understated at times so that Birling wouldn't have felt the need to ramp up his anger andindignation sometimes to the point of looking comical.
Another key element of the show is the attention to detail. From the period hairstyles to the elegant costuming - the men in cutaways and tails to the women dressed to the nines in long, elegant gowns - the characters look as though they stepped out of Downton Abbey.
The set, too, is lavish. The hunter green wallpaper is the perfect backdrop for the elegant, dusty rose-colored seating, while other set pieces help establish the family's lifestyle.
Even the opening remarks - about cellphones, etc. - were charmingly delivered in character by the Cockney maid (Velcheck), a harbinger of good things to come during the next two hours.
IF YOU GO
Who: Waukesha Civic Theatre
What: "An Inspector Calls"
When: Through Feb. 17
Where: 264 W. Main St., downtown Waukesha
Tickets: (262) 547-0708 or www.waukeshacivictheatre.org.
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