Four Broadway hits in a row during the 1950s insured William Inge a place among the most lauded contemporary playwrights of the era. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for "Picnic" in 1953. He followed that up with "Bus Stop" in 1955 (which had is world premiere at Mccarter with Kim Stanley and Elaine Stritch) and "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" in 1957, insuring us that he was no fly-by-night. Each of the above has since had revivals either on or off Broadway. However, it is his first hit, "Come Back Little Sheba" (1950), that is the most problematic for revival. Its shortcomings are diminished as much as possible in the Manhattan Theater Club’s handsome production.
The futility and lethargy of day to day existence, as experienced by so many of Inge’s specifically Midwestern characters, has a faux classical resonance that often shows up as dated and tedious in revivals. In "Sheba" the dullness of domesticity rears its head, but is saved by the heartbreaking relationship between Lola, a faded beauty, and Doc, her ex-alcoholic husband.
While it may be deemed as an adventurous undertaking for S. Epatha Merkerson to play the role famously associated with Shirley Booth (both on Broadway and the film version), the gifted actress gives us glimmers of the comically poignant middle-aged housewife who suffers valiantly and pathetically through the drama. Notwithstanding her laudable stage credits, Merkerson is probably best known for the past 14 years as Lt. Anita Van Buren on the TV series "Law & Order."
It could be my own memory of Booth that gets in the way, but Merkerson projects a robust vitality and nature that occasionally gives the impression of being detached from Lola’s inertia and day-to-day denial of reality. Lola is not delusional, but she does effectively escape from her monotonous life listening to an exotically set soap opera. This short moment affords Merkerson a wonderful opportunity to lose herself in romantic languor. She has, perhaps, her toughest assignment playing a woman with no particular interest or ambition other than the care of Doc (Kevin Anderson).
Merkerson is at her best embodying Lola as a survivor who clings relentlessly to the notion that things are and will get better with Doc. Their married life got off to a bad start after Doc felt obligated to marry Lola, a pregnant 19-year-old girl.
Life for the self-ascribed "old, fat, and ugly" Lola has been particularly forlorn since her dog, Sheba, disappeared never to return. Early scenes that show her daily ritual of chit-chat with the empathetic postman (Lyle Kanouse), the hunky milkman (Matthew J. Williamson), and her cautiously friendly next door neighbor, Mrs. Coffman (Brenda Wehle), are both sensitive and funny as they reveal Lola’s rare opportunities for social contact. Merkerson has her most endearing moments as she bends their ears with small talk, but always ending with a tag about Doc’s successful year of sobriety.
Merkerson is anything but a fragile Lola and that’s okay. She makes it quite clear how desperate Lola is for attention and how bravely she is holding on to what remains of their marriage. Lola has to make some tough decisions like calling AA for help after Doc falls back into a dangerous, life-threatening alcoholic state. At that point Merkerson is able to turn Lola into someone for whom we really care about and could cry for.
Anderson, a Steppenwolf actor whose performances on and off Broadway never fail to garner plaudits, is splendid as Doc, a chiropractor who sacrificed a promising career as a doctor to marry Lola. His own daily routine is marked by his failure to find peace with himself or contentment with a wife he conspicuously resists loving. Anderson reaches the peak of his well-calculated performance as he inevitably descends into an alcoholic stupor and becomes a real threat to Lola.
Doc’s routine is also defined by his noticeable infatuation with Marie (Zoe Kazan), a pretty college student-boarder, and the jealousy he feels when Marie entertains Turk (Brian J. Smith), her libidinous jock boyfriend. Kazan, who is making her Broadway debut and made a good impression recently in "Things We Want," offers a quirky, mannered, and disaffecting portrayal, a touch out of synch with the time. Smith is excellent as the sex-driven Turk as is Chad Hoeppner, as Bruce, Marie’s late-arriving back-home suitor.
Michael Pressman’s direction is a respectful and admirable consideration of a bittersweet play whose dramatic style has diminished with time. Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes meticulously establish the 1950s era, especially Lola’s frowsy frocks. A sepia-toned photo that suggests a modest-income neighborhood in a Midwestern town is the backdrop of set designer James Noone’s walls-free setting of a two-floor home. The ordinariness of it is a perfect compliment to the sad but unexceptional lives moving about in it. Any consideration, however, that any of Inge’s plays deserve a place alongside those of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller is purely sentimental. HH
"Come Back Little Sheba," Manhattan Theater Club at the Biltmore Theater, through Sunday, March 16, 261 West 47th Street. $46.50 to $91.50; student rush $26.50. 212-239-6200.