Come Back, Little Sheba
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 27, 2008
When expensive Haviland china is thrown to floor, it generally shatters into a zillion pieces. But in Manhattan Theatre Club's revival of William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba, when the play's protagonist Doc Delaney flings some of his mother's precious plates onto the ground in the midst of a drunken rage, it fails to break. That may be somebody's idea of economy or safety, but it ruins the moment—and it creates a neat simile for this entire undernourished production: our hearts ought to break a little as well by the time the curtain falls, but this dispassionate revival stirred nary an emotion in me.
The story is about an alcoholic who has been resolutely practicing his 12 Steps in AA; there's a quart of whiskey in the kitchen cabinet, but Doc Delaney hasn't touched a drop in nearly a year. He's living day to day, the way his Serenity Prayer tells him to, fighting back the regret he must feel every time he looks at his once beautiful, now middle-aged, fat, and lazy wife, Lola. But the presence of a nubile young coed named Marie, who is renting a room in their house, has aroused odd sexual/protective/repressive urges in Doc, and eventually she will be the catalyst for his disastrous falling off the wagon.
Lola, meanwhile, struggles vainly trying to fill days made empty by her husband's emotional retreat. She's as superficially busy and giddy as the most desperate Samuel Beckett character, chattering endlessly about nothing at all to anyone who might happen by for a moment to hear her, searching for something that feels meaningful to do, even when such obvious things as cleaning the house or cooking breakfast or combing her hair remain undone.
Inge has created an interesting pair of characters in this raw play, and even though many of the social attitudes and most of the sexual baggage he's saddled them with are very much of their time (e.g., Lola calls Doc "Daddy" and likes watching Marie and her boyfriend make out; Doc is virulently disturbed by the idea that Marie is sketching her buff shirtless boyfriend for art class), they're easy to understand and to empathize with.
But director Michael Pressman seems to have encouraged his cast to eliminate any subtlety and to avoid any big emotions; S. Epatha Merkerson and Kevin Anderson deliver flat renditions of Lola and Doc that feel too self-aware and too contemporary to make sense in the world of Inge's play. The rest of the ensemble follows suit.
James Noone's set puts Doc and Lola's bedroom on stage on a second level above the kitchen; this is entirely unnecessary (and in fact it's distracting to watch Merkerson loll in bed during the play's opening minutes, pulling our focus from Doc and Marie). Peter Golub's music, which pops up only at the beginnings and ends of scenes, is portentous. And neither Noone nor costume designer Jennifer von Mayrhauser ever succeeds at making Lola and her unkempt house look like the messes everyone says they are.
I don't think that there's a forgotten masterpiece to be rediscovered in Come Back, Little Sheba; indeed, this production serves more to point up the play's flaws rather than its strengths. (For the latter, you need only view Shirley Booth's iconic performance in the 1952 film.)