J.B. Priestley’s 1945 drama “An Inspector Calls” is an engrossing, humorous, well-acted, and handsomely designed display at the Dayton Theatre Guild.
Breezily presented in three acts, Priestley’s thorough if heavy-handed chastisement of the privilege and personality of the upper class, an obvious portal into his own staunch views of socialism, concerns the Birling family of Brumley, England circa spring 1912. Inside their beautifully decorated dining room (superbly envisioned with dramatic flair by Chris Newman), the Birlings (attractively costumed with period panache by Carol Finley) gather for a dinner party celebrating Sheila Birling’s engagement to Gerald Croft. But joyful optimism suddenly subsides when the mysterious Inspector Goole arrives to aggressively interrogate everyone about their connection to the suicide of Eva Smith, a factory girl employed by Arthur, the family patriarch. It’s a stretch to assume the entire Birling clan came in contact with Eva (also known as Daisy Renton), but Priestley masterfully weaves credibility by building his case on classism. Goole adamantly feels the Birlings took advantage of Eva simply due to her status, particularly her monetary woes that ultimately lead her on a destructive path.
Director David Shough (responsible for last season’s impressive, tech-savvy production of “Dracula” at the Dayton Playhouse) once again utilizes music to heighten emotions. In this instance, flavorful strains give the drama a pinch of extra spice while simultaneously poking fun at its mystery/thriller essence. More importantly, Shough skillfully coaxes excellent, captivating portrayals from the principal players radiating with genuine passion and sophisticated authenticity.
The formidable Dave Nickel, intimidating and resolute, commands attention and vigorously propels the drama as Inspector Goole. Nickel is specifically astute at scolding in a manner that doesn’t feel excessive or cumbersome. Charles Larkowski, effortlessly firm, expertly embodies Arthur’s brash, forthright, capitalist mindset, which splendidly sets the play’s tone as a reflection of the ostentatious spirit of his fellow industrialists. “We don’t guess, we have experience, we know,” boasts Arthur ominously less than a month before the Titanic sails on her ill-fated maiden voyage. Larkowski also shows great vulnerability as accusations rise within Arthur’s imploding world. The remarkable Annie Branning, in her Guild debut, exquisitely counters as Sybil Birling, Arthur’s dutiful, headstrong wife who takes Goole to task with powerfully defensive pizzazz. As Sheila, Caitlyn Maurmeier, in another fine Guild debut, showcases a lovely evolution from innocence to spitefulness as her relationship with Gerald slowly disintegrates. Maximillian Santucci (a standout last season in the Guild’s local premiere of “100 Saints You Should Know”) underplays appealingly as Gerald, tenderly recounting his compelling history with Eva/Daisy in Act 2. As Eric Birling, Leonardo Santucci, delivering a breakthrough performance, oozes fiery contempt in Act 3 opposite Larkowski in an intense father-son showdown. Christina Tomazinis (as maid Edna) and Jamie McQuinn (as a Beggar) are underutilized but nonetheless serve as intriguing kindred spirits within the action.
“We don’t live alone,” Goole declares whether the Birlings like it or not. Without a doubt, “An Inspector Calls” prompts us to value sympathy and compassion in a world that continually places more significance in individualism.
“An Inspector Calls” continues through May 4 at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave., Dayton. Act One: 40 minutes; Act Two: 42 minutes; Act Three: 37 minutes. Performances are Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $18 for adults, $16 for seniors, and $11 for students. For tickets or more information, call (937) 278-5993 or visit www.daytontheatreguild.org
In related news, the Dayton Theatre Guild’s 2014-15 season will consist of Lee Blessing’s “Nice People Dancing to Good Country Music” (Aug. 22-Sept. 7, directed by Ralph Dennler), David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People” (Oct. 3-19, directed by Debra Kent), Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles” (Jan. 9-25, directed by Kathy Mola), Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” (Feb. 27-March. 15, directed by Craig Smith), Jane Martin’s “Criminal Hearts” (April 17-May 3, directed by Saul Caplan), and George Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” (May 29-June 14, directed by Patrick Hayes).