Monday, February 10, 2014
I hadn't seen "An Inspector Calls" since the Tony-winning Broadway revival 20 years ago, directed by Stephen Daldry, whose next big success was "Billy Elliot." I don't think any Mecklenburg County company has given J.B. Priestley's drama a full run since then. So when I saw that Little Theatre of Gastonia was doing it, I drove over Sunday to take a look. (The show continues this week.)
Once upon a time, many community theaters put "little" in their names to denote non-professional status. (Theatre Charlotte was using that designation when I arrived in 1980.) Gastonia still makes community theater the old-fashioned way: no full-time staff, volunteers working hundreds of hours -- 669 up to opening night, according to the estimate in the playbill -- and a box-office that's open whenever someone can be there, usually an hour or so before showtime. You can get tickets online at CarolinaTix, of course, and they're a bargain: $15, with discounts for students and seniors.
But once the lights went down, I found myself immersed in the troubles of the Birling family, upper-class folks living in an industrial city in the northern part of England. On the evening of the daughter's engagement to the son of another wealthy manufacturer, an inspector calls with disturbing news: A young woman has committed suicide, and he suspects everyone present may have played some part in her downfall.
The actors were fully immersed in their parts and consistently convincing. They, too, seemed caught up in a story that argues we're all connected, all responsible for each other's suffering. That's a message of compassion we need to hear more often in America these days, as the gulf between rich and poor continues to widen.
I came away convinced again of two things. First, love of language carries a performer a long way toward success. Passion matters more to a production than smoothness of presentation; an occasional dropped accent or fumbled word doesn't get in the way, if actors are as dedicated as these. I forgot I was watching people who go to high school or work at a local airport and took them seriously as characters.
Second, plays like this are the answer to the question, "What good is literature?" We're constantly told children need to be raised pragmatically; money spent on education should go toward courses of study that point straight to solid jobs. But students who don't stop to humanize themselves along the way end up like the Birlings, smug and narrow-minded and secure inside their insular lives. Does anyone really want to live in their world?
Posted by Lawrence Toppman at 12:03 PM