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 Pressmanís new production of William Ingeís 1950 domestic tragedy is as ideal a mating of concept and material as could be hoped for. But if itís 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 canít disguise the fact that the play has not evolved as American consciousness has.
This is also true of Ingeís 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 Ingeís 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 Ingeís plays were daring and even controversial in their time, they donít 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 Williamsís similar treatments of an unfriendly world at war with itself.
When 44-year-old housewife Lola Delaney (Merkerson) is ogling Turk (Brian J. Smith), whoís posing half-naked so his girlfriend and Lolaís 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, itís ostensibly because she hasnít successfully shed her girlhood desires in favor of more refined, adult pleasures. Lolaís 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 Docís 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 Docís union has sunk. Thereís 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 Lolaís 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 Docís life almost when their sense of shared magic did.) Thatís mostly ignored in Pressmanís staging, which is awash in an atmosphere recalling a cloud briefly passing overhead on a bright summer day Ė you know itís just a matter of time until the light returns. (James Nooneís open, giving, and well-kept house set introduces similar problems to the stageís visual look.)
Merkerson conveys Lolaís wistful forlornness, stifled spirit, and optimistic nature, but never at the same time. The actressís 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 doesnít unite them into a fully cohesive character.
Anderson, on the other hand, traverses the treacherous landscape of Docís 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 Turkís dalliances or must stumble his way into a violent early-morning confrontation with Lola near playís end are too dependent on histrionics to satisfy as standalone scenes from Docís 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 Lolaís 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. Thatís probably for the best: The demolishing of the playís 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.