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The Comeback of  Come Back, Little Sheba

 

Theater Review

by Pamela A. Lewis

The second place winner of Stage and Cinema's 2008 Theater Review Writing Contest

     In the introduction to his 1958 collection, “Four Plays,” William Inge noted, “I have been most concerned with dramatizing something of the dynamism I myself find in human motivations and behavior.   I regard a play as a composition rather than a story, as a distillation of life rather than a narration of it…I doubt if my plays 'pay off' for an audience unless they are watched rather closely.”

     Inge's 1950 classic (and his second play, after “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs”), “Come Back, Little Sheba,” which ran a limited engagement at the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Biltmore, demands close watching.  But it is in listening that you can detect the sounds, however faint, of the drama's powerful emotions that gradually push their way through the play's sedate surface.
    
     Lola (S. Epatha Merkerson), former beauty queen, now frumpy Midwestern
hausfrau,
lives to talk and will talk to anyone who has ears to hear her.   From the moment she steps down from her upper floor bedroom in the cross-sectioned dollhouse set, Lola talks constantly, even when she has nothing of real consequence to say.  No wonder, given that there are so few people who inhabit Lola's sparsely-populated world to talk to.  There is Doc, her husband (Kevin Anderson), Marie (Zoe Kazan), a college student boarder, her meddlesome, German neighbor.  When Lola offers the postman a glass of water (and then another), he becomes her captive, killed not so much by her kindness as by her crushing need to be heard.
    
     Despite the shabbiness of her home, Lola puts up a good front of the dutiful wife, one who keeps everything fresh and ready for Doc.  For all of her altruism, Lola, we soon realize, is a sham:  she's a busybody who derives a thrill spying on Marie and her hot-to-trot boyfriend, and has no scruples in steaming open a telegram addressed to her young boarder.  Doc, discovering her transgression, rebukes her, which is precisely the kind of attention Lola craves, so great is her need to be noticed.
    
     It is delusion, rather than love, that binds Lola and Doc; a delusion that hides not only Lola's phony kindness, but the truth of Lola and Doc's marriage, as well as their respective lost dreams.  He calls Lola his “baby,” but he is really in search of a younger  woman with a future (and a better figure).  Someone like Marie, whose very presence stirs within Doc desires he struggles to suppress.   Similar to the hapless postman, Doc (a chiropractor, rather than a M.D.)  is a captive to Lola's suffocating kindness and dependency.   But unlike Lola's long-lost dog, Sheba, that she at various points in the play forlornly calls for,  Doc can not run away from the prison that these delusions have created and that lead to the drama's shattering climax.
    
     To fans of the long-running “Law and Order,” S. Epatha Merkerson has been one of the series' mainstays in her role of  the no-nonsense Lieutenant Anita Van Buren.  As Lola, Ms. Merkerson inhabited her character completely, from the way she smoothed the front of her dress, how she looked into open space recalling one of Doc's booze-soaked rants, how her voice sounded like a little girl in need of her daddy (her occasional name for Doc).  Merkerson's Lola was not the lovable lump as portrayed by Shirley Booth in the original production of  “Sheba,” for which the actress also won an Oscar in the 1952 film.  There was much to dislike in this latter-day Lola, whose kindness and generosity extended to others is actually manipulative and self-serving.
    
     Ms. Merkerson was surrounded by a fine ensemble cast, with Kevin Anderson's Doc providing the tightly-wound spring that uncoils with devastating results, and Zoe Kazan's Marie offered a good balance of ingénue and a young woman who doesn't  want to become another Lola.
    
     In recent years, some directors have moved to color-blind or “non-traditional” casting.  While I have had some reservations about this practice, the choice of  Ms. Merkerson, who is African-American, was a right one.  The day that I attended the performance, the theater was filled with both black and white audience members who were clearly riveted by Ms. Merkerson's convincing and nuanced portrayal.  In her hands, Lola was no longer a particular woman, but Everywoman, caught in a dead-end life with tragic consequences.  We were watching - and listening to - a performance that rose above race and came to rest where all great acting belongs: the place called “art.”

 

 
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