Editor’s note: This article includes references to suicide and assault. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7. It can be reached at (800) 273-8255. The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline can be reached at (800) 656-4673.
Theatre in the Rough’s latest play is more contemporary than the works the Shakespeare-loving company typically stages, but it’s also a work that will probably be unfamiliar to many audience members.
“An Inspector Calls” by J.B. Priestley is a mystery-thriller published in 1945, and it opens in Juneau on Friday. It tells the story of the opulent Birling family whose upper-class status obscures a complicated tapestry of sordid, unscrupulous behavior exposed by the mysterious Inspector Goole. Through methodically exposing and picking at loose threads, Goole unravels the play’s central mystery —a young woman’s reported death by suicide — while ratcheting up tension among the Birlings.
It’s also part of a series of several “time plays” by Priestley that experiment with temporal concepts —think “Slaughterhouse-Five,” but less fragmented. In “An Inspector Calls” the chronological change-up serves as a final twist of the knife and the play that makes it more of a ghost story than a time-hopping brain-bender.
Katie Jensen, Theatre in the Rough co-founder and director for “An Inspector Calls” said she read the play based on a strong recommendation, and it made an instant impression.
“I just about fell over,” Jensen said. “I said ‘We have to do this.’”
She added: “It’s a beautiful piece. It’s right up there with (Tennessee) Williams and (Arthur) Miller.”
Theater company co-founder Aaron Elmore, who plays Inspector Goole, said it’s both a treat and a surprise that “An Inspector Calls” will have a Theatre in the Rough run.
While “An Inspector Calls” is commonly studied in British schools, the play never found as much success in the U.S. That’s in large part because of Priestley’s personal politics.
Priestley was the first chair of the socialist Common Wealth Party in addition to being a prolific broadcaster and writer, and “An Inspector Calls” premiered in Leningrad.
“For America, it was kind of a lost play —a mid-century masterpiece,” Jensen said.
While there’s been no shortage of analysis of socialism’s influence on the play’s subtextual political commentary, Theatre in the Rough’s production emphasizes a different element of the work —how society treats women.
Jensen and Elmore said the company initially wanted to stage the show ahead of the 2020 presidential election, but the pandemic complicated that timeline.
Consideration of treatment of women is something that’s no less timely now, Jensen said. That a play written in the ’40s and set in the aftermath of World War I can depict horrors befalling a woman that are entirely plausible today is also part of the intended commentary.
“That’s one of the reasons we’ve kept it in 1912,” Jensen said.
Additionally, Theatre in the Rough’s production will put an emphasis on the female character who drives the play’s plot in a way that differs from most takes on “An Inspector Calls.”
Typically, productions of the work leave the ills that befall Eva Smith —the young woman whose death by suicide triggers the inspector’s call —as spoken but not shown. In Theatre in the Rough’s version, audiences will see Evgenia Golofeeva portray Smith’s suffering, which includes both her death and a depiction of assault.
“It’s more objectifying to just talk about her and not see her,” Jensen said.
Jensen and Elmore want potential audience members to be forewarned of the difficult subject matter.
While “An Inspector Calls” isn’t the first relatively contemporary play Theatre in the Rough has performed, it is novel for the company’s show selection to be a commentary on current events.
“This is the first that’s pointed at what is happening now,” Jensen said.
While members of the Birling family are gradually revealed to be generally unsavory in myriad ways, Jensen said they’re not necessarily all bad people.
“It’s not black and white,” Jensen said.
While the Birlings have redeeming characteristics, Theatre in the Rough’s actors are still being asked to breathe life into some unlikable would-be magnates.
“It’s difficult because the character I play is unpleasant in a lot of ways,” said Becky Orford, who plays Birling family matriarch Sybil Birling.
Orford said she focuses on channeling and magnifying less-than-ideal periods from life to portray the cold character.
While it’s a challenge, Orford said it’s a rewarding one and called the play “incredibly strong” and “thought-provoking.”
“Being able to tell a story like this is going to have a real impact on the audience,” Orford said. “It’s kind of a privilege to do that.”
Know & Go
What: “An Inspector Calls”
When: Nov. 19-Dec. 12. Shows will be on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays with matinees on Sunday, Dec. 5 and Dec. 12. Evening performances will be at 7:30 p.m. and matinees will be at 2 p.m. There is not a Nov. 25 show.
Where: McPhetres Hall, 325 Gold St.
Admission: Tickets cost $25 and can be purchased online at https://jahc-internet.choicecrm.net/templates/JAHC/#/events. Theatre in the Rough cautions that the play includes depictions of suicide and assault and is intended for mature audiences.
Mitigation: Under a COVID-19-mitigation plan approved by the City and Borough of Juneau, audience members will need to show proof of vaccination. Masking and distancing will be required. All cast and crew have been vaccinated and are regularly tested for COVID-19.
• Contact Ben Hohenstatt at (907)308-4895 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.