Once routinely mentioned in the same breath with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, William Inge is largely ignored today, known if at all because his last name fits so readily into crossword puzzles. His first play, “Come Back, Little Sheba” (1950), illustrates all the dramaturgical weaknesses present even in his more mature works “Picnic” and “Bus Stop”: clunky exposition, obvious symbolism and predictable plotting. But the strengths that originally brought him acclaim will emerge in a sensitive and robust production, which is exactly what Center Theater Group has given “Little Sheba,” sure to be an audience favorite at the Kirk Douglas this summer.
Inge’s forte was Midwestern melancholy, the day-to-day listlessness stemming from regret that many saw as Chek-hovian until they realized that Chekhov’s characters are desperately trying to escape their stifling circumstances; Inge’s are prone to terminal inertia. Certainly “Little Sheba’s” middle-aged Delaneys have long since shed any hope of realizing meaningful dreams, though helmer Michael Pressman astutely recognizes that standing still is their defense against a descent into oblivion.
Their tenuous household routine — chiropractor Doc (Alan Rosenberg) shuffling to work as if on eggshells; wife Lola (S. Epatha Merkerson) calling him “Daddy” between bursts of mundane chatter — is vividly conveyed long before the revelation of the circumstances explaining it. Not that Lola is shy about confiding to neighbors and tradespeople alike that Doc left med school and became an alcoholic, but he’s completing his first year of sobriety through AA and doing real good, thanks.
What she won’t say — what she and Doc won’t even discuss — is that the one-time local beauty queen had to marry at 19 and then lost the baby, forcing Doc to drop out and use up his savings to establish a practice. Since then she has grown, by her own admission, “old, fat and sloppy” eating candy and fantasizing to radio romance to block out a quarter-century of Doc’s binges and domestic violence, now a memory but by no means a distant one.
Merkerson puts Lola into a gentle haze, her mind never quite adjusted to the here and now, as if hoping that floating off will keep the badness — the dark at the top of the stairs, as a later Inge title puts it — from returning.
Her calls for her titular missing puppy, which of course represents her lost youth and promise, are plaintive but tiny, as if directed not at the real runaway but at the spectral dog of which she nightly dreams. Merkerson’s is a subtler and equally valid take than Shirley Booth’s original, and one no less devoid of vanity. If anything, it’s easier to ac-cept that Merkerson was once a hot dish, now bent double from carrying the guilt of having brought her man’s life crashing down.
In an even tougher acting challenge, Rosenberg demonstrates in every conversation and activity a total, painful awareness of Doc’s past and present temptations. He strains at politeness toward the wife to whom he can barely give sidelong glances, and struggles to suppress unspoken desire for Marie (the wholesome yet seduc-tive Jenna Gavigan), their boarding college student juggling a respectable fiancé miles away (a slick Bill Heck) and a lusty jock all too close at hand (Josh Cooke, all confident libido). Doc’s fall off the wagon is telegraphed in scene one and, tied as it is to Marie’s sexuality, could play as ludicrous, except the actor has shown us the cracks in the facade and made us dread the moment when it finally shatters.
These superb performances — the cast contains no weak links — are complemented by James Noone’s expressive yet realistic two-level ’50s-era design, expertly detailed down to the Mixmaster on the counter and rust stains on the stove. Absent walls reinforce the Delaneys’ watching rather than participating in life, with sepia-toned photographic backdrops conveying the drab oppressiveness of what the playbill calls “a semi-respectable neighborhood.”
Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes also play an integral part, from Marie’s period-specific brassiere to Doc’s suits a bit too big, and Lola’s wrappers just a tad too small.
Pressman’s precise and nuanced staging makes no case for restoring Inge’s rep as a dramatist, but does make a case for theaters’ reconsideration of other popular pre-1960 American dramas, revived regularly in Britain but rarely here unless a star seeks a meaty vehicle. The prosaic, domestic concerns of the likes of “Come Back, Little Sheba” may have been swallowed up by television, but when mounted with talent and commitment these plays can hold a live audience spell-bound, and might begin to attract back spectators who have drifted away from work that, while more adventurous, is also more remote from their everyday experience.