Come Back, Little Sheba: Theater Review

Craig Schwartz
Well-acted revival brings little new to Inge’s dated though emotionally compelling character piece exploring the loneliness and nostalgia of a middle-aged housewife.

Known for its screen version with Burt Lancaster and Shirley Booth, William Inge's 1950 drama about a Midwestern marriage in crisis gets revisited in Pasadena by A Noise Within.

In 1947, playwright William Inge joined Alcoholics Anonymous where he met a vivacious young woman named Lola, the wife of a fellow sufferer. She became the basis for Lola Delaney, the rudderless housewife at the center of his first play, Come Back, Little ShebaShirley Booth and Sidney Blackmer both took home Tony Awards for the original 1950 production, with Booth going on to star in the 1953 film opposite Burt Lancaster, for which she won the Golden Globe and the Oscar. Though sometimes criticized for its focus on trivial domestic disquiet, strong characterizations and emotional dynamism make Come Back, Little Sheba an actors’ showcase for its two leads. A Noise Within’s Deborah Strang and company co-founder Geoff Elliott infuse the company’s latest production with enough latent tension and emotional veracity to overcome the play’s inherent inertia.

The play’s lead female character, Lola Delaney (Strang) married young after becoming pregnant but lost the baby -- and with it -- any hope of having another. Her husband Doc (Elliott) was a promising medical student, but alcoholism kept him from fulfilling his dream. When the action begins, she is an idle housewife whose longing for the past is embodied in the memory of her puppy, Sheba, who ran away and (like the past) is never coming back. Lola lives vicariously through the couple’s boarder Marie (Lili Fuller), an art student who is dating Turk (Miles Gaston Villanueva), a track and field star. But Doc, who has been sober for a year, disapproves of Turk. And Marie has another boyfriend back in Cincinnati whom she’s fixing to marry.

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Written while Inge was a teacher at St. Louis’ Washington University, Come Back, Little Sheba demonstrates his deft use of subtext and vivid characterization, but plotting never was his strong suit. Beyond ample doses of back story and exposition, nothing much happens in the play until Doc discovers Marie has spent the night with Turk, which shatters his image of her as a virginal princess.

Best known for playing Gloria Hansen on The Newsroom, Strang has long been artist in residence at A Noise Within, starring in numerous classics including last season’s Pericles and more recently, Tartuffe. Her versatility enables her to pivot smoothly from characters defined by strength and fortitude to those displaying weakness and vulnerability. Lola, a role that could easily tip into cloying bathos, is made empathetic and gregarious by Strang, whose chemistry with Elliott (who co-directs with his wife, Julia Rodriguez-Elliott), creates an even split of irresistible force and immovable object.

Reserved and resolute, Elliott’s Doc is a man unmasked as a hell-raising brawler once he’s had a drink. His low-key performance in the first act gives him plenty of room to work with during his drunken rant in the play’s climax. Elliott makes the transition look easy, despite unconvincing plot contrivances that put a bottle in his hand. Sure, alcoholics don’t need an excuse to fall off the wagon, but Marie’s indiscretion hardly seems like the last straw.

But even as Elliot and Elliot fine-tune their cast, they inadvertently magnify the play’s most pronounced deficit -- a lack of pacing -- by including inexplicably long, wordless stretches as Doc listens to music and smokes a cigarette or washes the dishes.

Production design by Stephen Gifford has a vanilla flavor that lacks authenticity. The Delaney’s living room is a mess, but it doesn’t look lived in -- it looks art directed. And the wood-plank wall that makes up the room’s backdrop gives it the rustic feel of a country house, not middle-class suburbia.

Inge was a vaunted writer in his time but has since been eclipsed by contemporaries like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Times have changed since 1950, and most married women today may find it hard to empathize with Lola, but one thing that hasn’t changed is middle-age malaise and the realization that our best years are behind us. We may not find ourselves calling for Sheba in the middle of the night, but like Lola, we can’t avoid looking back without a measure of nostalgia and regret.

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