Saturday, February 09, 2008

Sheba is Back

Sheba is Back by Tony Vellela

She calls her husband ‘Daddy.’ It’s mid twentieth-century Middle America, in an average-looking small home. And in William Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba,” judging this piece’s gravitas based on its familiarity and commonplace appearances would be deceptively simplistic. If you want to understand who lives here, don’t look at the furniture; look under the carpet.

Like he did in his sturdy plays “Bus Stop,” “Dark at the Top of the Stairs,” in the Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama “Picnic,” and in his Oscar-winning screenplay for “Splendor in the Grass,” Inge throws open the front porches and back doors of small-town life. If your reaction summons a feeling of clichéd nostalgia, you have not allowed yourself to view these works as contemporary for their era, a very common mistake with plays that take place in the recent past. No one looks at Ibsen and thinks ‘nostalgia’ now, despite the similarities in how each playwright bores in on a specific, particular domestic universe. Out of the routines of daily life, Inge mines deeper truths that transcend time, place, class and status.

Now in her late forties, Lola’s teen-age beauty queen looks and figure have faded, along with much of her spirit. When she and ‘Doc’ married, in the 1920s, it was a forced union, but the failed pregnancy also signaled the death of that momentary passion that brought them together. Instead of keeping to his track to become a doctor, he was forced to abort his professional career plans. He now works as a chiropractor, and struggles with alcoholism daily. To make ends meet, they take in a college boarder every year. The current resident is Marie, a consciously flirtatious young woman studying art, and practicing the art of young womanhood. Both of her studies are progressing nicely.

In this current revival at the Biltmore Theatre, presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club, Lola is brought to life in a mesmerizing performance by S. Epatha Merkerson. If audience members only know her as the pointed Lt. Van Buren on NBC’s flagship “Law & Order” series for the past fourteen years, they will be surprised at what others have known for some time – this is a gifted, meticulous actor with great range, most notably seen in the HBO television production of “Lackawanna Blues,” and in the Broadway premiere of August Wilson’s haunting “The Piano Lesson.”

Presenting the ‘facts,’ like reading a resume, does not reveal what’s behind the words. Doc suppresses his attraction to Marie, and masks it as concern for her welfare when she takes up with a track star jock. Lola’s loneliness is broken only by her compulsive need to talk – to anyone – and not just the postman and the mailman, but even a wrong number caller. And Marie plays with Doc’s infatuation like a child tormenting a kitten with a dangling bit of yarn. When Marie’s ‘innocence’ is, in Doc’s blinder-bound eyes, violated, his fragile personal identity is shattered, and he surrenders to the bottle. His violent rampage, lashing out at Lola, reveals the tenuous thread that sometimes keeps the marriage together, and the consequences whenever that thread snaps.

This is a relationship between unequals – and this is not a reference to the mixed-race casting of Merkerson as Lola and Kevin Anderson as her husband. In 1950, nearly all marriages were between the dominant man and the subservient wife, and the degree of inequality had to do with her education and social status, or his willing participation in a union with someone on his level. Lola is uneducated, while Doc was on a track to medical school. Lola likes to listen to popular hit parade music; Doc relaxes listening to “Ave Maria.” But the widest gulf between them is each one’s view of how happy they are in the marriage, or how willing they are to perpetuate its myth. And when that gulf opens up, he drinks, becomes abusive and self-destructive, and moves them once again to the brink of destruction. And what is her vision of where she can find refuge? With her family, which requires getting ‘permission’ to return home. At the height of the current crisis, she calls and asks her mother if “Daddy will let me come home.” That rejection tells us why she sometimes calls her husband ‘Daddy.’ Even the younger-generation Marie, swept away at the end by her fiancé, tells Lola that “Bruce says I can visit.” This lack of female empowerment informs “Come Back, Little Sheba,” and when you look carefully into Lola/Merkerson’s eyes, and watch closely at her carefully measured behavior to keep Doc satisfied, it is that fear of losing his approval that has been swept under the rug.

Two other points about this production have gotten somewhat off the track in other commentary. Yes, Inge is generous in his use of symbols – Marie’s jock friend throws the javelin, and poses for her in shorts, holding his spear; yes, Lola’s little dog Sheba represents her lost youth. But those who decry these symbols overlook their own allowance of seemingly more sophisticated symbols from later work – look at Ruth in the current revival of Pinter’s “The Homecoming,” slowly sipping from a water glass, or Colin McPherson placing his “Seafarer” saga on Christmas Eve. It’s a bit patronizing to hit on Inge for doing something sixty years ago that has continued, in newer ways, ever since.

And the discussion about the mixed race casting of Lola and Doc misses two key points: Inge places his play in middle America in 1950, more than twenty years after this couple married, making them newlyweds in the 1920s, when such a marriage was illegal in most states. That introduces a backstory that Inge did not intend, making them even more rebellious than we are shown. The question that needs asking is why not cast an African-American Doc? There is no shortage of middle-aged gifted actors in that category. Making Doc a white character married to an African-American wife adds unspoken layers to Doc’s fascination with Marie, who calculatingly provides Lola with the information that she lets Doc run his fingers through her hair. That’s not what this play is about, and the choice of Merkerson in this shattering portrayal deserves to be supported with a casting choice that does not distract from the heart of her troubled, painful story. Kevin Anderson is, it must be emphasized, in every way a solid portrayer of Doc.

If you allow that that misstep in casting, and do not calculate in the actual implications, you can witness a revival of searing engagement. Sheba may not come back, but it’s great that Epatha has let Lola return to the New York stage.

Tony Vellela, veteran Broadway correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, has also written for dozens of other publications, including Parade, Dramatics, USA Today, Rolling Stone, Emmy Magazine and The Saturday Review. He wrote and produced the documentary PBS series on theatre, “Character Studies.”

(Acknowledgement: these are the opinions those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Drama Book Shop.)

Come Back, Little Sheba By William Inge Mantattan Theatre Club
At the Biltmore Theater, 261 West 47th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200
Through March 16, 2008.

On our shelves now:
Come Back, Little Sheba
Acting Edition, $7.50

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