In the Classic Theatre Festival production of J.B. Priestley’s mystery thriller An Inspector Calls, playing until September 11 at 54 Beckwith Street East, Sean Jacklin gives a compelling performance as the troubled young man Eric Birling, who battles demons and drink as he, along with his family, all become suspects in the death of a young woman.
This gripping story is a very different role from Jacklin’s comic appearance as an overweight telephone repairman battling six flights of stairs in the Neil Simon comedy, Barefoot in the Park, at last year’s Festival. “I love playing Eric because I can identify with a lot of what he’s going through,” Jacklin says. “He’s suddenly becoming socially aware in a time that is completely controlled by the generations above him who don’t think anything like he does, for the most part. There’s a frustration there, a genuine desire to do good but a complete inability to do so faced with the stagnation and repression around him. It’s not all that different today.”
Jacklin points out that the play, written in 1912, features a younger generation that will soon bear the wounds and scars of the First World War. He knows Eric is likely to “be part of the first wave of British soldiers sent into the machine gun fire two years later when war breaks out across Europe.”
Local audience members who recognize the man playing Eric Birling are not mistaken, as Jacklin has been a regular fixture on Perth stages for two decades, beginning with a role at the age of 7 as Ricky, the son of the main character in The Seven Year Itch. “I got to run around the stage with one of those horses on a stick things, firing a cap gun and wearing a cowboy hat. I guess that pretty much sold the whole acting thing for me. I’d love to be able to do that on stage again someday, but somehow I don’t think it would be as cute as a 26-year-old.”
Jacklin came by his profession honestly, as his parents, David and Janice Jacklin of Barn Door Productions, have a lengthy history as the producers of over 100 community theatre shows in Perth.
Jacklin recalls a production of Hamlet his parents produced on the grounds of Perth Manor over a decade ago, “playing about four roles in total while also running around backstage opening trap doors and doing little technical things. I love the rush of playing one character and switching over to another. I played Johnny Frazier and Corky the Clown in Circus Gothic for our Sears Festival show in grade 12. That’s a pinnacle show for me; one of those shows where everything you’ve been learning and feeling over a set time culminates in something really special.
“When I got to high school (PDCI), I had the great fortune of working with Carolee and Geoff Mason in their last 4 years at the school running the drama department and extra curriculars,” Jacklin says. “Suddenly theatre was this great bastion for relieving the stress of the classes I didn’t really give two shakes about. They also really instilled in me a drive and discipline that I’ve never forgotten. I then spent 4 years at the University of Guelph, a beautifully supportive community where I could live and learn with people living and learning the same things I was going through. I focused a lot on tech while at university, which came in handy when I found myself working for the Classic Theatre Festival in their second and third seasons. Earlier this year, I finished my acting training at George Brown College, where I again found a group of wonderfully supportive peers to grow with. It’s the people you’re with that really stand out, because they become your support group when the institutions feel like they aren’t giving you what you need at that moment. You can turn to your friends and seek the motivation from them instead.”
Jacklin feels especially supported by his fellow cast members in An Inspector Calls. “This group is incredibly open and caring and ready to jump in and make things happen. Eric has to go to some dark places, and I’ve always felt able to go there with this cast; nobody is giving the fresh, green theatre school grad the side eye wondering what the heck he’s doing, and that means the world to me.”
Jacklin has had a busy summer in Perth, also directing the two historic walking plays that close this weekend, River of Memory and A Taste of Perth. In September, it’s back to Toronto with a focus on Canada’s 150th anniversary. He’s conceived The Re-Confederation Project, which will involve travelling the country with a group of fellow theatre creators “to as many cities, towns, hamlets, indigenous communities, and other places where humans live and ask them questions about their identity. Not ‘Where did your family come from?’ but specific questions like, ‘When you wake up what is the first thing you have do?” or ‘What is something that makes you mad?’ or ‘What is something that makes you happy?’ I’m hoping through these questions we can gather a lot of material that the people of this country (or randomly assigned lines and borders) have created that will give us an idea of what day to day life is on the personal scale.”
In the meantime, he’ll be part of the compelling crew performing one of the 20th century’s most talked about and produced mystery thrillers, one whose message continues to be debated by audiences and critics alike each time it’s produced. “Ultimately I think Priestley’s goal was to make at least half of the audience leave the theatre and give the cab driver or restaurant server an extra big tip at the end of the night to hopefully brighten their day a bit. Perhaps carry some groceries for someone who is having trouble. I think he wants us to make sure we’re always looking for small ways to make other people’s lives and experiences better. If we all do that then the collective human experience is raised to a better standard. The problem, though, is that everyone has to agree to do it all the time. It can’t be just one person here or there. It’s that Do Unto Others thing.”
Tickets to An Inspector Calls are available at www.classictheatre.ca or 1-877-283-1283.