Michael Pressman’s earnest revival of William Inge’s heartbreaking drama “Come Back Little Sheba” for Manhattan Theatre Club has a touching performance by television star S. Epatha Merkerson as the central character Lola. Considered raw and explicit when in debuted on Broadway in1950, “Come Back Little Sheba” feels decidedly tame and dated today, although hauntingly so.
William Inge’s depiction of Lola, a faded beauty queen trapped in a lonely marriage to an alcoholic chiropractor, may have been the ultimate “desperate housewife” for his time, but that was over five decades ago. Liberated women now have numerous options to massage their wounds and avoid the play’s primary conflict. The playwright, nevertheless, launched his career with “Come Back Little Sheba” capturing the period poignantly with themes that still resonate today.
Shirley Booth’s memorable portrayal of Lola, which won her a Tony Award, was immortalized in the l952 film that also won her an Oscar. Mr. Inge would be heralded as a major playwright and his later plays “Picnic” (Pulitzer Prize for drama), “Bus Stop” (directed by Harold Clurman with Kim Stanley), and “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs”(directed by Elia Kazan with Geraldine Page) would also be made into films. His stories have a gritty sweetness that feels period authentic, but his heavy handed melodramatic style and obvious symbolism haven’t allowed his tales to age gracefully. His last big success would be the screenplay for the 1960’s film “Splendor in the Grass” winning him an Academy Award. His writing, although moving, doesn’t hold up well, and Pressman’s tidy production seems to accentuate the flaws rather than conceal them.
The story set in the Midwest focuses on the despair of a loveless marriage. Doc played by Kevin Anderson married Lola, his high school sweetheart, when she became pregnant, giving up his medical studies to do so. But when a miscarriage destroyed their hopes for the future along with her capacity to bear children, he turned to the bottle. The play begins 25 years later; when he is sober a year with the help of AA. The couple has taken in a boarder, a savvy young college student Marie (Zoe Kazan), who has two boyfriends. Her presence in their mundane life will become the catalyst for Doc’s meltdown and violent explosion in Inge’s sentimental tale of their strained marriage.
Merkerson, famous from 14 years on television’s “Law and Order,” movingly captures Lola’s damaged quality with a sincere performance, but she has little shading or nuance. She is an excellent actress with roots in the theater, but she doesn’t go far enough in Pressman’s staging. As Doc, the skilled Anderson, turns in a combustible performance full of bitterness and frustration from his compromised life, but his work is predictable and postured. He is playing the problem not the cover
Most disappointing, however, is that the two leads have little chemistry together. The pictures look correct, if you are willing to accept their interracial marriage in 1950, but the effect is as if they were acting separately with imposed concepts of the characters. There are no real connections and as a result, the tensions necessary to build the play to its devastating conclusion are decidedly missing. The MTC production is curiously interesting as a period piece concerning themes still relevant today; repressed emotions, self esteem, alcoholism, domestic violence, premarital sex and childhood pregnancy, but the ghost of Shirley Booth haunts the evening. Every time I heard Ms. Merkeson utter “Daddy,” Lola’s pet name for Doc, I could hear Shirley Booth’s voice from the film reverberating in my head and see her pleading for love and acceptance.
By Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published in Dan's Papers
“Come Back Little Sheba” opened on January 24, 2008 at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Biltmore Theatre, 261 West 47th Street between Broadway and Eight Avenue. Tickets are available by calling Telecharge.com at 212-239-6200 or at the box office.