EmptyKirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City
Through July 15
William Inge's breakthrough Broadway hit from 1950, "Come Back, Little Sheba," is a study in the subtle nuances and tight-lipped restraint that characterized the Midwest he grew up in during the first half of the last century, conditioned his respect for people's inner dignity and led to an understanding that life was as much about acceptance as it was about change.
The play is an unblinkingly honest, simple but beautifully written study of Doc (Alan Rosenberg) and Lola (S. Epatha Merkerson), a joyless, middle-aged married couple in orbit around a young college woman (Jenna Gavigan) who is living the life they were prevented from having, both by circumstance and their own personal baggage. Their stillborn marriage led to Lola becoming a frumpy housewife and to Doc becoming an alcoholic chiropractor who's been on the wagon for a very long 11 months. As the play unfolds, events trigger their repressed emotions, taking them into a free-fall that threatens to destroy their fragile world.
Despite its apparent simplicity, this is a play that demands discipline in its interpretive choices because the light shed by each word and gesture is so dim and evanescent that only together do they create light. Unfortunately, the Center Theatre Group's new production under the direction of Michael Pressman is more a run-through than a finished product.
Rambling around on a big set in which the upstairs bedroom and porch are barely used, the cast moves busily through the dialogue as if they had another engagement to attend. There is a lot of exuberant physical energy from Gavigan's college lover (Josh Cooke) and the milkman (Matthew J. Williamson), both of who, along with her fiance, are pretty much interchangeable except for the size of their muscles.
There is an unfortunate excess of torpor from Rosenberg, who, except for brief moments when he must rouse himself to action, seems more comatose than chronically depressed. The cast as a whole does not inhabit the world in much more than a superficial fashion, and even within stereotyped Midwest conventions, the players rarely speak to one another in anything resembling an authentic manner.
The gifted Merkerson shows involvement and sympathy with her role, but though her performance is eager and fresh, she fails to begin with the slatternly central persona that has become Lola's fate and out of which Lola must attempt to rise. Instead, she adopts an endearingly cheap and cheerful manner from the start, and it doesn't help that her home doesn't look like the untidy, dirty product of a desperately resigned homemaker, nor that she putters back and forth from the kitchen to the living room so relentlessly. Her attempts at getting in touch with her own physical passion, including writhing on a couch and dancing to what sounds like an old Arthur Lyman album, are only intermittently successful.
Gavigan is the cast's most interesting member, but her electric attempt in the opening scene to ignite Rosenberg's dead sexuality promises more than she ultimately delivers. Instead, her over-the-top chirpy voice and character deny the audience the opportunity to compare and contrast the two women's emotional maturity. And both Gavigan and Merkerson should be persuaded that spending more quiet, quality time together would deepen the play's emotional reach.
COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA
Presented by Center Theatre Group
Playwright: William Inge
Director: Michael Pressman
Set designer: James Noone
Costume designer: Jennifer von Mayrhauser
Lighting designer: Jane Cox
Sound designer: Cricket S. Myers
Original music: Peter Golub
Lola: S. Epatha Merkerson
Doc: Alan Rosenberg
Marie: Jenna Gavigan
Turk: Josh Cooke
Mrs. Coffman: Brenda Wehle
Milkman: Matthew J. Williamson
Postman: Lyle Kanouse
Bruce: Bill Heck