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The annual murder mystery at the Shaw Festival has been a big success right from the start, and this year's installment, J.B. Priestley's "An Inspector Calls," adds even more luster to the slate of past hits.

It opened Friday in the Royal George Theater and continues in repertory through Oct. 14.

The good news is that "An Inspector Calls" will charm the sandals right off the informal Royal George audiences all summer long, and is therefore money in the bank for the festival.

The bad news is that seldom have I encountered a mystery in which a larger percentage of its surprise twists and turns are absolutely off-limits in writing a review, lest the theatergoers' pleasure in discovering the unexpected shocks for themselves be diluted.

This much can safely be told. Director Tony van Bridge calls this a morality play as well as a mystery. He's right on the mark, because playwright Priestley is as much concerned about exploring the dark side of human nature as he is about creating a mystery.

He gives us the Birling family at dinner, welcoming young Gerald Croft into the circle as the fiancee of daughter Sheila. Arthur Birling and Gerald's father are business competitors, son Eric is a ne'er-do-well yet to find himself, and mother Sybil is apparently a pillar of the community.

While they are congratulating themselves on a fine alliance between leading families (and maybe even a potential corporate merger with untold profits to be reaped), an Inspector Goole arrives with news of a young girl, pregnant and apparently homeless, who has committed suicide. He suggests that each person in the room may have had something to do with this tragedy.

Self-righteous indignation is the response. One by one the inspector, played very coolly at first by van Bridge himself, questions and implicates them. Arthur Birling, it turns out, had fired the girl for leading a strike for a living wage. Sheila had her fired from her next job for perceived insolence.

Gerald had kept her as his mistress for two months. Sybil had chaired the Women's Charitable Association which turned down her request for aid although she was destitute and pregnant. "Find the father and make him pay," she had told the girl.

And son Eric? He's not only the father, but had stolen money from his father to help support her.

Van Bridge's control as he increases the pressure and decreases his toleration of the Birlings' uncooperative responses is remarkable. And when all the confessions are out, he simply saunters out into the night.

It's obviously too early for the drama to conclude, as the shell-shocked Birlings figuratively lie strewn around the battlefield. Then one of them casually asks if Goole ever showed his credentials as an inspector and another whole subplot begins to unravel, reveal ing even more despicable sides to some of the protagonists' characters.

To go one inch beyond this point in the review would be a disservice. Suffice it to say that the performance bristles with excellent performances.

Barry MacGregor is a superbly aggressive, hard-headed businessman for whom ethics plays a distant second to cutthroat competitive instincts. Wife Sybil is Marion Gilsenan, stuffy and rather insignificant, then superbly haughty and condescending in insulating herself from the unpleasantness until it touches her.

Susan Stackhouse and Blair Williams, even though heavily involved, still maintain some sense of proportion and responsibility rather than just entrenched defensiveness, and are convincing in these attitudes. And Richard Waugh as representative of old money is appropriately cooler than his peers, and even somewhat honorable about owning up to his responsibility.

Van Bridge's direction tends to let the dialogue race beyond the limits of easy audibility at times, but insofar as drawing all the complex lines of involvement, is very bold and crystal clear. His use of a frozen scene and the heavy ticking of a clock to close and open the inner act is very effective.

"An Inspector Calls" should be a near sellout all summer long.

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