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Life as a wealthy upper-crust sort in Edwardian England apparently wasn't always as effortless as you'd imagine. Consider the case of Arthur Birling, for example. The patriarch of J.B. Priestley's play An Inspector Calls, Birling (Mark E. Smith), is a respectable British gentleman. He has a respectable manufacturing business, a respectable charity-board-chairing wife (Kate Singleton) and a respectable public position as ex-Lord Mayor and magistrate in the town of Brumley.

Sure, his son, Eric (David Knoell), is a squiffy semi-alcoholic, and his pretty daughter, Sheila (Sarah Jane Fridlich), is petty and petulant, but with her newly engaged to his chief competitor's son, Gerald Croft (Michael Kutner), Birling isn't about to let anything crease his stiff upper lip. And why should it? Only barbarians in the Balkans put any stock in the swirling rumors of world war, and the laissez-faire economy appears as unsinkable as that newfangled Titanic. Other than the occasional labor agitator at his factory asking for an additional three shillings a week, no unpleasant undesirables are allowed into Birling's rarefied orbit — until the night a pushy police inspector (Keith Kirkwood) arrives on his doorstep, bearing shocking insinuations involving the aiding and abetting of a self-inflicted fatality. Why, one might almost pity the bow-tied blusterer, watching him stammer as the scent of scandal threatens to strip him of his social status. Almost.

In the hands of director Rob Anderson, Mad Cow's production of Priestley's 1945 thriller is like three plays in one. There's the slightly satirical early-20th-century poli-sci message piece with moralizing monologues on social responsibility; the overwrought drawing-room mystery stuffed with dramatic accusations and tearful confessions; and the eerie semi-supernatural shocker with a head-scratching denouement. It's as if the first act were written by G.B. Shaw, the second by Agatha Christie and the third by Rod Serling. Likewise, the cast is quite competent, but they don't all arrive at a consistent tone.

Smith makes a superb upper-class twit, struggling to secure his crumbling ivory tower, and Knoell creates an emotional grounding for Eric's inevitable dissolution. Fridlich (previously seen in Major Barbara, Pericles and my last Fringe show) does an excellent job with the melodramatic heavy lifting, swinging from helpless hysteric to mature moral arbiter. Singleton embodies oily self-righteousness in her single featured scene, despite being saddled with an unfortunate wig; while Kutner's squinting, lock-jawed Lothario appears to be auditioning for Prince Charming in Into the Woods. Even Erin Miner's lighting shifts from rich naturalism to stark expressionism at the act breaks; paired with Bud Clark's symbolic set of empty picture frames and hollow structural beams, the stage design implies a stylistic influence from the deconstructionist 1994 Broadway revival that isn't followed through in other aspects of the production.

Thankfully, Kirkwood's performance as the impertinent Inspector Goole is powerful enough to be the tent pole that this show requires to avoid collapse. Reminding me a bit of a straight-faced version of Simon Pegg in Hot Fuzz, the authentically English Kirkwood makes an intense interrogator, able to deliver homilies like "We have to share something. If there's nothing else we'll have to share our guilt" without making the audience howl. With its uncomfortable mix of suspense and socialism, An Inspector Calls is an unconventional addition to Mad Cow's season. While I enjoyed and admired many elements, I'm not sure on balance if their gamble paid off. I got plenty to chew on, but I wouldn't go back for a second helping.

In the beginning, out of the darkness, comes a voice; an Irish brogue rich and warm as a Guinness-laced stew, speaking of childhood, of flowers, of fathers. Eventually the shadows part and form the face of Molly Sweeney (Katrina Ploof), her flaming hair framing half-lidded, unseeing eyes. Next, from out of the black steps her husband, Frank (Sam Hazell), an elfin autodidact prone to ebullient enthusiasms; his obsession with Molly's lifelong blindness and their resultant whirlwind courtship may merely be the latest in a long line of hobbies, falling between Iranian goat-herding and Ethiopian economics. Finally, the last vertex of our trinity appears: Ophthalmic surgeon Mr. Rice (Mark Ferrara) abandoned a once-meteoric career for the County Donegal countryside, drowning his divorce-spurred sorrows in whiskey and fly-fishing. He sees in Molly's damaged — but theoretically reparable — retinas the "chance of a lifetime" to restore his ruined reputation. The odds of success are vanishingly small (roughly 20 in a thousand), but what does Molly have to lose? Nothing except her private world of tactile senses, a world in which she is confident and independent in body and spirit. But then, no one really asks what Molly wants.

Irish playwright Brian Friel, best known for his Tony-winners Faith Healer, Translations and Dancing at Lughnasa, returned to the mythical rural town of Ballybeg for 1994's Molly Sweeney. The story is directly inspired by "To See and Not See" (from An Anthropologist on Mars), a medical case study by Dr. Oliver Sacks, author of Awakenings, which shares a similar clinical and dramatic arc. Friel structures Sweeney as a series of interwoven monologues, charting in past tense each character's memories of Molly's attempt to engage the visual world. Each member of the trio is enclosed in his or her own pool of light, fading into silhouette as another takes focus, never making contact with each other. The effect is entrancing, evocative of a living radio play.

The trail of Molly's treatment winds through a fascinating forest of philosophical musings on the nature of seeing — as opposed to understanding — with Locke, Aristotle and Icarus as symbolic signposts along the way. On Broadway (starring Jason Robards, Alfred Molina and Catherine Byrne) and in subsequent productions, Friel's play has been criticized as "anti-theatrical," but director Alan Bruun and his excellent cast overcome that pitfall by infusing each moment with honest and immediate emotion. Hazell is ideal as a man with a permanent twinkle in his eye and emptiness in his soul; Ferrara aptly expresses Rice's self-loathing in slow, silent sips from his ever-present tumbler. But it is Ploof's Molly who utterly commands our attention, communicating with the audience without benefit of the actor's most essential tool: eye contact. As I recovered from the agonizing final fadeout (credit John M. Hemphill Jr.'s sensitive light design) and emerged into the early-evening twilight, I seemed for a moment to see the downtown streets around me with newly appreciative eyes. And isn't that the ultimate goal of all great art?

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