In the midst of a high-society dinner party in 1912 New York, a police inspector arrives to question people about the suicide of a poor, young woman. And the drama unfolds from there in the Epiphany Players' production of "An Inspector Calls."
The actors are part of the dramatic arts ministry of The Church of the Epiphany in Herndon, where the play will be presented Thursday-Saturday, March 23, 24 and 25, at 7:30 p.m. each night.
The address is 3301 Hidden Meadow Drive, at the corner of Fairfax County Parkway and Franklin Farm Road. Admission is free — and gourmet desserts will be available at intermission — but tickets are required. Call 703-449-0755 or e-mail email@example.com.
"It's been described as a spine-tingling, steadily engrossing drama, with all the tension and suspense of a classic thriller," said director Greg Conrad of Chantilly. "And it's won more awards than any other play in the history of the theater."
Written by British playwright J.B. Priestley, it's been performed on Broadway and in London's West End. In 1994, it won four Tonys for best revival of a play, director, featured actress and lighting. It's also won Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle honors, plus three Olivier Awards — the English equivalent of the Tonys — in 1993.
In Conrad's version, the action begins shortly after the infamous Triangle fire of 1911, in which 146 garment workers died — and just as the progressive movement is threatening the entrenched political machine known as Tammany Hall.
The play centers around the Birlings — a selfish, high-society family in the classy, Prospect Park subdivision. "As Inspector Poole asks insinuating questions of the complacent, bourgeois family members, it becomes clear that they all bear guilt for the destruction of a woman they have variously exploited for cheap labor, cheap sex or worse," explained Conrad. "Then the plot thickens."
The Epiphany Players have been doing productions for several years, but this is the first time a show has been open to the public. It'll be on the third night of the church's five-week teaching series on "Humble Access," meaning, said Conrad, "How do we look to the Redemption story in Christianity when we find ourselves in difficult circumstances of morality and matters of conscience?"
Jim Wolfe of Franklin Farm plays the father, Arthur Birling. "He's a social climber, protective of his family — although more protective of his reputation," said Wolfe. "He's gruff, somewhat domineering and insensitive."
However, he said, Birling's also caught up in events and controlled by his wife — "the silent force behind the family. But he doesn't realize it because he's not that bright. He owns a factory and has fired Eva Smith, and that started her descent. But he doesn't believe he's responsible for what's happened to her. And even when he learns that he is, he really doesn't get it, and his only concern is to avoid a scandal. He has no remorse, no guilt."
Wolfe says it's fun playing a character so different from himself and being able to say things he never would. And he believes the audience will be surprised at how intense this play is. He also warned that, while not sordid, it deals with adult themes such as extra-marital affairs and pregnancy and is not for younger children.
"The plot has a lot of twists and turns," said Wolfe. "And it is a morality play, so it ties in with our Lenten service at the church and the theme that we are responsible for others in society. We are our brother's keeper. We just can't go on, every man for himself."
He said it's a "very worthwhile" play to put on and is going to be a quality show. Said Wolfe: "People are going to enjoy it for the entertainment, as well as the [message]."
Playing his wife, Sybil Birling, is Susanne Jones of Herndon. They have two grown children, Eric, a drunk, and Sheila, who's engaged. "Sybil is cold and is a control freak," said Jones. "She thinks it's either her way or the wrong way. She's blind to Eric's faults and tries to run her husband's and daughter's lives. But she likes Sheila's choice of fiance because it'll bring a professional merger for her husband — who she's trying to help promote up the ladder."
Jones said it took her a long time to "find" Sybil "because she's so opposite of me. But the more I have props in hand and wear her jewelry, it helps me get into character. And I get to stretch myself a good bit and do emotions I don't normally do."
She said the cast is a terrific group of people, many with lots of acting experience. "We've laughed so much and had such fun doing this play, but we also take what we're doing seriously," said Jones. "And Greg [Conrad] is a wonderful director and is such a help to us; he gives it his all and really knows his stuff."
As for the play, she said, "We know it will give people a lot to talk about for days, because that's what happened with us. They'll see all sorts of nuances and layers. You'd like to think we've changed a lot since 1912, but I think a lot of the problems we have of not taking care of each other, being involved in each other's lives or realizing how our lives affect others, are still true today."
Conrad told his cast that doing this play would change each of them and make them all examine their own beliefs to see if they're at all like the characters they're portraying. And, said Jones, audience members will also ask themselves who is the inspector?
"It's not your typical church play, and there's nothing preachy about it," she said. "It's something you'd want to see because it's a really good production. You don't have to be interested in religion to like this play."
Playing the inspector is Dennis McNeely of Sterling. "He's kind of odd in that he already knows everything that's going on in the play, but he has to ask questions to draw it all out of the characters," said McNeely. "He's there to show that everything they do has an impact on others; we're not alone." The inspector's extremely upset that the Birlings don't recognize their roles in Smith's demise so, said McNeely, "He's full of righteous indignation."
He said it's a challenging part — "I'm not naturally on edge all the time" — but he's enjoying it. And he's finally doing what he always wanted to do — act. "I think people will appreciate the play," he said. "And being part of its message is very satisfying."
Calling it a "multi-dimensional" drama, Conrad said the characters "require these actors to dig deep and bring them to life so they'll resonate with the audience — and they're capturing that beautifully. This is a lot of hard work at community-theater level and it's very much a team effort."
He said the show's message is timeless: "It's a play for the ages." And, he added, "Part of the whodunit is for the audience to try to figure out who was Eva Smith and what role the inspector played in all this. We've been rehearsing since early January and, every time we touch the script, we find new dimensions of these characters and this story."
Luke Lucas, the church's associate rector, saw this play in the early 1990s, and dreamed of having it produced someday at Church of the Epiphany. Now the dream's coming true and, said Conrad, "The audience will find the show riveting and be spellbound by the story unfolding before them. It's challenging to piece together how these people relate to each other, and it should be a very satisfying experience."