Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 24, 2008
Come Back, Little Sheba by William Inge. Directed by Michael Pressman. Scenic design by James Noone. Costume design by Jennifer von Mayrhauser. Lighting design by Jane Cox. Sound design by Obadiah Eaves. Original music by Peter Golub. Fight Director J. David Brimmer. Cast: Joseph Adams, Kevin Anderson, Chad Hoeppner, Daniel Damon Joyce, Lyle Kanouse, Zoe Kazan, S. Epatha Merkerson, Brian J. Smith, Keith Randolph Smith, Brenda Wehle, Matthew J. Williamson.
In this way, Michael Pressman's new production of William Inge's 1950 domestic tragedy is as ideal a mating of concept and material as could be hoped for. But if it's enough to ensure that the play, at least as acted here by a fine if unremarkable company led by S. Epatha Merkerson, Kevin Anderson, and Zoe Kazan, still packs punch (if a relatively gentle one), it can't disguise the fact that the play has not evolved as American consciousness has.
This is also true of Inge's three other masterworks, Picnic, Bus Stop, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, which have aged with considerably less grace than the major plays by Inge's contemporaries, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. But Inge spoke to and of the common man with an authority and grace they did not, shunning dramatic and technical innovation in favor of exposing the primitive passions on which the American family thrived or suffocated.
If Inge's plays were daring and even controversial in their time, they don't translate easily to ours. Come Back, Little Sheba, especially, is so reliant on ham-handed psychologizing and homoerotic subtext that it plays as a guided tour of the mid-century closet, without the attendant insight or searing dialogue that characterized Williams's similar treatments of an unfriendly world at war with itself.
When 44-year-old housewife Lola Delaney (Merkerson) is ogling Turk (Brian J. Smith), who's posing half-naked so his girlfriend and Lola's boarder Marie (Kazan) can sketch him for her art class, or when she feels up the muscle-bound milkman (Matthew J. Williamson) with a bodybuilding fixation, it's ostensibly because she hasn't successfully shed her girlhood desires in favor of more refined, adult pleasures. Lola's well-meaning husband, Doc, is a recovering alcohol she drove to the bottle and the brink of poverty by her ceaseless reminiscing and a miscarriage a number of years ago.
If Doc's battles with sobriety are a bit overwrought, complete with a jarringly telescoped descent from the wagon and preachy input from a handful of classic fixtures of Alcoholics Anonymous, they are effective at showing the depths to which Lola and Doc's union has sunk. There's also a subtle if profound connection established between Lola and Marie - is the latter, torn between Turk and her long-distance sweetheart (Chad Hoeppner), setting herself up for a reprise of Lola's fate 20 years down the line?
The constant, confused intermingling of what was, what is, and what will be (or what might be) is what gives Come Back, Little Sheba most of its emotional pull. (And, for that matter, its title - Sheba was a fluffy white puppy that grew into a dispirited adult and vanished from Lola and Doc's life almost when their sense of shared magic did.) That's mostly ignored in Pressman's staging, which is awash in an atmosphere recalling a cloud briefly passing overhead on a bright summer dayyou know it's just a matter of time until the light returns. (James Noone's open, giving, and well-kept house set introduces similar problems to the stage's visual look.)
Merkerson conveys Lola's wistful forlornness, stifled spirit, and optimistic nature, but never at the same time. The actress's characteristic strength is a poor match for a brittle, broken woman who perseveres regardless; Shirley Booth, who originated Lola on both stage and screen, brought an eccentric vulnerability to her that let her be both commanding and cowering. The take-charge Merkerson hits individual beats beautifully, but doesn't unite them into a fully cohesive character.
Anderson, on the other hand, traverses the treacherous landscape of Doc's existence with an ease and confidence Merkerson lacks, but tends to disappoint on the close-ups. The scenes in which Doc must be driven to sickness by Marie and Turk's dalliances or must stumble his way into a violent early-morning confrontation with Lola near play's end are too dependent on histrionics to satisfy as standalone scenes from Doc's life.
Kazan brings a knowingly youthful air to the not-so-innocent Marie, and Smith upends just enough of the dumb-jock stereotype to surprise as Turk. But neither they, nor the handful of additional supporting performers (including a fitfully funny Brenda Wehle as Lola's German neighbor), have enough onstage time to fill in the blanks.
Not that it much matters. One feels, from watching this production, that most of the extant ink has already faded. That's probably for the best: The demolishing of the play's central taboos, both stated and unstated, has propelled society to a more accepting and forgiving place Inge, like Lola and Doc, would no doubt have approved of.
But except for a few shadowy suggestions of greatness and occasional snatches of melodious dialogue echoing as if from a celestial music box, this renaissance has also decimated the play that Come Back, Little Sheba once was, which challenged a changing country to confront its demons in a very different way than Death of a Salesman did the previous year. This play, so staunchly about breaking free from the confines of an unpleasant past, is now mired in an inescapable one of its own.