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Come Back, Little Sheba

fat MTC's Biltmore Theatre

MTC's revival of William Inge's 1950 Broadway hit, Come Back, Little Sheba, currently at the Biltmore, offers audiences a mild challenge. In a completely naturalistic play about a troubled, middle-aged American couple, their co-ed boarder, her boyfriends, and assorted neighbors, all of them presumably white, the production, directed by Michael Pressman, casts S Epatha Merkerson as Lola, the wife — and the leading role. The challenge to Ms Merkerson is rather more formidable. It would be stupid even to think of "making the audience forget that she is black" — so stupid that I must put the idea in scare quotes. Instead, the actress must convince us that the color of her skin makes no difference to a drama that is resolutely set in the year of its premiere, when an interracial marriage between Lola and Doc would have been not only unthinkable but thinkably unthinkable. Brigades of Americans were on the lookout, in those days, to punish such irregularities wherever they might occur.

If I were cynical, I would "wonder" if Ms Merkerson had been chosen in order to spice up a play that one hardly expected to see on Broadway in this day and age. What happened to William Inge? A teacher turned drama critic turned playwright, Inge killed himself in 1973, at the age of sixty, convinced that his career was not stalled but stopped. His reputation as one of America's most thoughtful men of the theatre had been usurped by Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, both of whom were overtly gay (Inge remained closeted). He was thought of as a "problem" playwright, which meant, after 1970 at least, that he wrote about problems that younger audiences considered solved. Never exactly avant-garde, Inge was, by the time he died, somewhat passé.

Whatever the company's motivation for building a revival around a person of color, the result vaporizes any and all sense of incongruity. Ms Merkerson owns the role lock, stock and barrel by the time Lola has stretched out on the sofa and hiked up her dress while she jiggles to the sultry radio program, "Taboo." This little scene, which all but explicitly invites the actress playing Lola to "do black," gives us instead a somewhat spread-out middle-aged woman in a moment of utterly private abandon, exhibiting no special gifts for vamping the  hootchy-kootchy. It must have been a very shocking moment, back in 1950, when "nice" women — or even women who could, like Lola, only aspire to be "nice" — were believed to be incapable of entertaining such (innocently) depraved notions. 

The story of Lola and Doc is the sad old tale of chewed-up respectability. Back when he was a college boy headed for medical school, Doc got Lola pregnant. He dropped out of school and became a chiropractor instead. Over the years, his disappointment swallowed him up in drink, but at the start of the play he has been sober for a year. Alcoholics Anonymous is a virtual character in the play. As far as Lola is concerned, AA saved Doc's life, and if she's perhaps inappropriately pleased to tell just about anyone that her husband is an alcoholic, it's because she means that he's a recovering alcoholic.

Things are good with Lola and Doc, but they would be better if Little Sheba, the dog whom Lola has raised from a pup, hadn't wandered off and/or gotten killed —and if the couple had their house to themselves. While Doc was "sick," however, and money tight, Lola converted the dining room into a bedroom, and rented it to a college student (Zoe Kazan, wondrously possessed of the Fifties Girl's determination to be Grown Up). Marie is a perky and cute, but it's her youth that has captivated Doc. Far and away the second best thing about Come Back, Little Sheba is Inge's the strength with which it captures the danger of Doc's unconscious passion. It's his bad luck, perhaps, that Lola, who goes in for the sunny view of things, doesn't see it, either. Marie is just aware enough of it to keep her guard politely up, but she disturbs the delicate balance with a bit of harmless two-timing. Juggling the boyfriend back home (Chad Hoeppner, suited and brilliantined) with the track star on campus (Daniel Damon Joyce, on our night, as a letterman in a T-shirt), she stirs up the muck of Doc's longing, and he falls off the wagon.

Doc's slip is the the crisis of the play, and Kevin Anderson makes it very upsetting. In his hands, the terms that Doc has come to in his life are fragile, only tentatively acceptable. Perplexed by an inadmissible longing (for Marie — but it could be for any forbidden, unacknowledgable thing), Doc is overwhelmed by his dissatisfaction, which finds its natural object in Lola. Lola whom he had to marry; Lola who is now "a cow." 

As this brief synopsis shows, there is nothing dated about Come Back, Little Sheba. Today, perhaps, Doc would stay in school, and Lola, if she didn't have an abortion, would give up her baby for adoption. The two of them might or might not get married. But Inge's play is not about the prison of convention. It is about the difficulty, no less daunting today than it ever was, of domesticating disappointment. The best thing about Come Back, Little Sheba — about this production, at any rate — is Lola's assurance, at the end, that she will stay with Doc, just returned from drying out at the city hospital. "You're all I've got," she says, and you could wait forever to hear something hit the bottom of the well that Ms Merkerson becomes for this moment. At the beginning of the play, Lola calls out for Little Sheba, hoping against hope that This — this life without her puppy, this life in which her beloved husband has been incapacitated by drink — isn't It. At the end, she accepts that This is All She's Got.  

The care that MTC has lavished on this revival can only be called loving. James Noone's excellent set and Jane Cox's fine delicate lighting register the worn uneasiness of Doc's house, while Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes carry us back to a vanished America so surely that we forget that we're watching a period show. Peter Golub's extraordinary original music belongs on a CD in my library. Brenda Wehle, Lyle Kanouse, Keith Randolph Smith and — providing scene-stealing comic relief as the Milkman — Matthew J Williamson fill out a cast that remarkably makes the point that, in the event that we Americans ever manage to establish an equivalent of the Comédie Française, Come Back, Little Sheba belongs in its repertoire. (March 2008)

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