AISLE SAY New York
COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA
by William Inge
Directed by Michael Pressman
Starring S. Epatha Merkerson and
Manhattan Theatre Club
at the Biltmore Theatre on West 47th Street
Reviewed by David Spencer
In some quarters it seems that William Inge is having something of a resurgence, and I think I understand it, to some degree: When he was writing the plays that hit most powerfully—from about 1950 through the mid-60s—he was dealing with sexual suppression, and the mores of the time, especially as they existed in small Midwestern towns; and though perhaps never with conscious intent (for he was often writing semi-autobiographically, both about issues that plagued him as a closeted homosexual, and what he observed in his family and others while he was growing up), he was also giving American drama its first glimpse into those themes through the filter of social commentary, and thereby also of modern psychology.
His brand of "case history" archetypes were among many suddenly being introduced into popular culture. Bear in mind, this was right around the time when television was beginning to flourish, and offer its own issue-themed dramas, through the daring works of Paddy Chayesfsky, Rod Serling, Reginald Rose and others. World War II was just a glance over the shoulder in the past, moral outrage was still being vented, and the need to expose and examine the human condition, toward better universal understanding—with a new medium as the messenger—was hotter, perhaps, than at any time before or since.
This produced works of amazing power and passion, but only a handful of them still hold up today—and why? Because the issues were being approached with freshman eyes. When JP Miller ripped the lid off alcoholism with Days of Wine and Roses, its frankness was bracing because the condition and its treatment had never been dramatized before. By today's standards, however, the characters seem more transparent as symbols—the "everyman" story of an average, middle-class American married couple's descent into addiction can seem quaint against more dynamic portraits of idiosyncratic victims under less pointedly "universal" conditions (i.e. today an addict can even be the title character of his own TV series, such as the brilliant diagnostician Gregory House of House, M.D., whose reasons for addiction are much more complex, much less open to easy moralization and, in keeping with what modern society has become, much more self-aware.) The same can be said of Rod Serling's Patterns, a once-devastating expose of the corporate world, rendered obsolete with such descendants as The Firm, The Insider, Wall Street, among others, to say nothing of Wolfram and Hart in Angel and the family business in The Sopranos.
But there were certain issues too hot for television of the time. Sexual suppression being high on the list of taboos (indeed, forthright investigation into sexuality of any kind was almost non-existent). And Inge was writing the issue-themed dramas you couldn't get on the tube. Quaint now, but then they contained an innate raciness and—as the ads often pointed out—candor that mainstream theatre was ready to handle. And, so it seems, audiences were heartily in support of the combination of titillation, revelation and melancholy in which he specialized.
It was, though, a combination that was very much of rather than ahead of its time, and Inge's popularity waned. (His 1970 suicide was reportedly linked to his belief that he had lost the ability to write well.)
But it's just as clear that he was a trail-blazer of sorts, paving the way for better and more sophisticated dramas to deal with similar subject matter. And I think that's why his work is being regarded anew. Now that a few more decades have passed, the times in which he wrote can be viewed in greater perspective, and his dramas seem less dated than like time-capsule snapshots. The paradox is, he wasn't a brilliant trail-blazer. He didn't have the clenched-jaw rhetoric of Serling, the irony of Chayefsky, the poetry of his mentor, Williams, the political fire of that other Miller, Arthur. What he had, instead, was what JP Miller had: the gifts of a solid, journeyman dramatist, far better and more memorable than average, but just as far a cry from greatness of literary and stylistic profile. He just happened to be the guy who was positioned to do what he did at the time it got done. More remarkable for having made the contribution than leaving an indelible impression as the contributor.
And that, to my mind, is the primary reason why the current revival of Come Back, Little Sheba is, for all the high-grade talent invested in it, so terribly mild.
The very opening image and dynamic teeters on the brink of self-parody. It's 1950, we're in a house in an unidentified "Midwestern city" at morning, and there in the kitchen is "Doc" (Kevin Anderson) a weary, middle aged chiropractor whose reformed-alcoholic, washed-out demeanor pines for faded youth—and the student border to whom he and his wife have rented the reconverted dining room, a young. nubile college girl named Marie (Zoe Kazan). And when his wife Lola (S. Epatha Merkerson) enters, chunky, chatty and further from nubile than Doc ever imagined she'd be when he married her, more than just the obvious sexual dynamic is in play: you're just as conscious of the author's machinations. What better way to illustrate a man's lost sense of masculinity than to put an inaccessible bimbette (who isn't as innocent as all that, as the developing story reveals) under the same roof as the weathered, needy, nattering, yet still childlike and trusting—and all too available—hausfrau he was obliged to marry after getting her pregnant? (And the baby died, and she lost the ability to have more. To borrow a delivery rhythm from Rodney Dangerfield, the situation is loaded, I tell ya, loaded!)
Then there are the moments of, as they say, quiet desperation, which are really about what they don't say. "You're not sorry you married me, are you Doc?" asks Lola; the query providing its own answer. And Doc insisting, with twelve-step fervor, that it does no good to dwell on the past, you have to live in the PRESENT and move FORWARD, the very emphasis communicating his obsession with missed opportunity.
And there's the obligatory bottle of booze in the cupboard, untouched for a year, a symbol of Doc's hard-won sobriety; which sure enough, prepares for the moment when Doc, stressed beyond endurance, takes it out and looks at it, thoughtfully, thirstily...
It's melodrama, kids, pure and simple. But as I say, it was being applied in a new way, when Inge wrought it. Thus its impact then. Thus its creakiness now.
S. Epatha Merkerson, a lovely actress, keeps it very simple, which is ideal for the guileless Lola, but really only when the appointed actress has a natural simple-ness in the palate of her performance persona. I have no idea what the role's originator, Shirley Booth, was like in real life, she may have had the intellect of an aerospace engineer; but onscreen she was always a little dotty and believably unsophisticated. Ms. Merkerson, however, seems to be achieving her Lola by muting her natural intelligence—subsequently there's no, I have to put it this way, no bounce to it. Lola's dogged optimism, despite lacerating sadness, is her drug, just as alcohol is Doc's, and the power of it to transform a mailman, a milkman, a neighbor, from thinking her at first a busybody to regarding her as an angel of mercy who really notices and cares about what they do, needs to be the wattage that offsets the dated funk of the rest.
Likewise, Kevin Anderson's Doc seems a contrivance; Mr. Anderson's found many a right-sounding little spin to put on things, but for me, I was constantly aware of the spin. But I don't really think the less of him for it. He's always been a good actor and Doc, for all his extravagance of expression and gesture, makes for a thankless role. Even as Inge insists upon Doc being redeemable, the mans's a letch and an uptight prig with not even a dark sense of humor to make him bearable. Then again, Inge's lyric realism is not about verbal wit. But you can't blame an audience for hoping.
Disturbingly too, the combination of Merkerson and Anderson doesn't ring true. This may be in part due to the colorblind casting in the milieu of this particular play (and by the way I'm a HUGE fan of colorblind casting, more and more as I get older, because I think itŐs a prime contributor to what makes ethnicity less and less of a social barrier), but a part of me wonders if it's as simple as a lack of real chemistry between the two stars. As my companion of the evening remarked, you feel as if they met during rehearsals, not as if they'd spent the last twenty years together.
The rest of the cast, under Michael Pressman's unobtrusive direction ranges from serviceable to sturdily reliable (the latter represented by old pros like Brenda Wehle and Kevin Randolph Smith), but stuck with likewise archetypal roles, they could hardly be inspired.
Now here's where being a critic is a strange job, because while I believe what I've said is true, this Come Back, Little Sheba is not dull or flaccid, nor in any manner mishandled or negligent. It's cleanly professional, straightforwardly respectful, utterly watchable, "enjoyable" in the sense that you don't begrudge the time spent or the exposure to the play—and even engaging: I re-emphasize that though Inge wasn't a mold-breaking stylist, he was still an expert storyteller. And the audience response reflects that.
But there's a line that separates decent, diligent professional work that you can't help but respect; and an evening that reaches for, and perhaps even touches, something divine. And Come Back, Little Sheba never comes anywhere near crossing it...