In its promotional materials, Lyric Theatre calls J.B. Priestley’s 1945 play, An Inspector Calls, a “Downton Abbey meets Sherlock thriller.” 

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In its promotional materials, Lyric Theatre calls J.B. Priestley’s 1945 play, An Inspector Calls, a “Downton Abbey meets Sherlock thriller.” It’s more a mystery than a thriller, and it also has a definite dash of The Twilight Zone.

However you describe it, Inspector remains a slight work in more ways than one, but the Lyric production — directed by Michael Baron — has a certain modest appeal. And the play makes a point that the eponymous inspector lays out in detail just in case you missed it.

Inspector takes place in the dining room of the home of Arthur Birling, a factory owner and civic pooh-bah in Brumley, Great Britain, in 1912. The family is celebrating the engagement of their daughter, Sheila (Victoria Hines), to Gerald Croft (Paul Mitchell), scion of another Brumley manufacturer.

The script never specifies what either company makes, but it doesn’t matter; Priestley views all the business class with a skeptical eye.

With the women in tasteful, if costly looking, gowns and the men in white tie and tails (costumes are by Jeffrey Meek), the party is interrupted by the trench- coated Inspector Goole (a taut Jonathan Beck Reed), who’s investigating the death of a local, working-class girl who committed suicide by drinking a strong disinfectant.

Birling (Stephen Hilton, burly even in evening dress) and his wife (Helen Hedman) possess the fragile self-consciousness of the self-made business class. A tragedy has occurred, and all they worry about is how it will make them look to their peers.

Employing eggshell-blue, patterned wallpaper and contrasting white wainscoting, Kimberly Powers’ jewel box set design portrays the Birling dining room as a diamond in the rough of the grim and grimy industrial age. The bright room hovers above dark piles of scrap metal, which the Birlings step into without even treading lightly. We soon see that Birling and his manufacturing counterparts consider their employees to be a sort of human scrap. It’s telling that the play’s premiere was in the Soviet Union; it didn’t play Great Britain until 1946.

The Lyric production is fine, but it’s not likely to raise your pulse, and how much it raises your consciousness depends on you. Baron’s staging reflects a point of view that is sympathetic with Priestley. The actors maintain their British accents while giving satisfactory performances.

Although by no means a great play, Inspector raises issues that remain relevant today in an intermissionless one hour and 15 minutes. How long will employers such as Birling be able to squeeze as much work as they can out of their employees while paying the lowest possible wages? Will the Birling children act on their concern for the working class?

Another point Priestly makes is that actions and especially words might have consequences. The old childhood retort about sticks and stones breaking bones but words never hurting could not be further from the truth.

Print headline: Mystery zone, Lyric Theatre’s An Inspector Calls is a plainspoken and unassuming period piece.

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Larry Laneer

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