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Review: ‘An Inspector Calls’ delivers at Timber Lake

MOUNT CARROLL – The season’s second show, “An Inspector Calls,” opened Thursday night at Timber Lake Playhouse, with attendance only slightly compromised by inclement weather. During the enthusiastic action, a gentle rain was a soothing backdrop.

The play was written by J.B. Priestley in 1945 and became a classic of the 20th century, winning numerous awards in the ’90s. For BBC’s “Downton Abbey” fans, it struck a chord, making the mystery a timely production for TLP.

Celebrated Chicago director Chuck Smith is a guest director for a 13th consecutive year at TLP, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. Among his many Chicago credits are 22 years on Goodman Theatre artistic staff. Now that he has discovered the summer stock experience in the woods and all the talent that comes with it, he comes out to the boonies every year.

The very title, “An Inspector Calls,” might draw images of a slamming-door farce with warring personalities that deliver fragile timing of dialogue. Nothing can be further from the truth.

This play takes a small cast and unfolds a mystery into such a well crafted piece, as Smith notes, that one can hardly predict anything. Delicate timing matters very little, in fact, because the strength of the script in one evening in one prosperous house develops quite naturally into a multi-layered mockery of class, society and politics.

Set in 1910 in a pre-Titanic world, the Birling family of Brumley is most comfortably cloistered in a world apart from reality. As head of household, Mr. Birling establishes their “unsinkable” place in society. The undoing of this illusion begins as Inspector Goole (or is he an inspector?) pays a call to the drawing room celebration of a daughter’s engagement. All members of the family are somehow implicated in the apparent suicide of a young woman (who was she again?).

Returning special guest actor John Chase as Mr. Birling hum-drums his way through with commanding presence, sometimes rattled with a “fiddlesticks” or two and desperately trying to hold on to his superiority. Chase is a strong asset to TLP productions, having previously performed in “Working,” “Oklahoma” and “Spamalot,” among others.

Chicago actor Danielle Brothers makes her TLP debut as huffy matriarch Mrs. Birling. Her imposing voice and authoritative manner grew especially in the second act as the family fell apart. Brothers draws from her some 20 years at “Chicago Shakespeare Theatre,” “Porchlight” and “Buffalo Theatre Ensemble.”

The role of daughter Sheila Birling was played by Caroline Murrah, also making her debut at TLP. She was a delightful contrast to Brothers, with her high-pitched hysteria while evenly expressing anger toward handsome fiancé Gerald Croft, played by Gabriel Brown. As Inspector Goole (who was he again?), Grant Brown was dutifully awkward, conniving and mysterious. Bethany Fay as Edna kept the drawing room as formal as possible.

Returning to TLP is actor Cody Jolly, a recent graduate in theatre arts at Webster University of St. Louis. The role of son Eric is right up his sleeve, as were his other characters in “The Music Man” and “Unnecessary Farce” of last season. His work in a third TLP show, “Young Frankenstein” (July 3-13), will indeed be a hoot to behold.

Find out who the Inspector is in “An Inspector Calls,” which runs through Saturday at Timber Lake Playhouse, 8215 Black Oak Road, Mount Carroll. Evening performances start at 7:30 p.m. (No show tonight.) There is one more matinee, at 2 p.m. Wednesday. Group rates are available.

Contact the box office at (815) 244-2035 or for more information. 

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