Virtually all the characters in William Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba” steal repeated glances at their watches, indicating that time passes for each of them and they have other places to be. Except for Lola. In S. Epatha Merkerson’s poignant performance, this faded former high school beauty queen is hopelessly mired in the past. Naive, girlish, incessantly talkative and starved for romance and company, Lola is rendered almost feeble-minded by her solitude. She’s the quintessential 1950s housewife, sleepwalking through a melancholy world in which women are assigned few roles beyond homemaker or whore.
But while Merkerson supplies the tender heart to Inge’s slow-burning domestic drama, Michael Pressman’s production — which began with the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles last summer and has been brought to New York by Manhattan Theater Club with some key recasting — unfolds for much of its two acts at a hazy emotional distance.
Premiered on Broadway in 1950 and then filmed two years later, the play won both a Tony and an Oscar for Shirley Booth, who created the role of the slovenly Midwestern housewife desperate to please her drunken husband. More than a half-century later, it remains very much of its time.
At his peak, Inge was ranked alongside Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, but the emphatically freighted characters and heavyhanded symbolism in his sentimental melodramas have made them age less gracefully. In a production sensitively attuned to the writer’s mood, style and themes, Inge’s work does have a bruised humanity, keen atmosphere and a genuine feeling for everyday folks living mundane lives stripped of their dreams.
Pressman animates the text with efficiency and clarity on James Noone’s evocatively homey, two-level set. But only when festering dissatisfaction explodes into violence and cruelty does the director fully overcome the flaws in the writing to transport us deep inside the characters’ world.
The lethargic first act makes a considerable chore of its exposition duties. As Doc (Kevin Anderson) trudges off to work each day and his wife fusses about the house doing nothing in particular, we learn they were forced to marry at a young age but Lola lost the child she was carrying. Doc dropped out of medical school and had to settle for becoming a chiropractor, eventually turning to the bottle. Straining to maintain civility toward a woman he seems at times to barely tolerate, Doc has been sober for almost a year now, prodded by Lola to recite his daily AA prayer in a futile attempt to stay straight.
The couple’s fragile stability is tested by their young boarder Marie (Zoe Kazan), whose bristling sexuality and flirtatiousness turn Doc’s head while filling Lola’s with silly notions of vicarious romance.
Inge is not exactly subtle in laying out the subtext, enlisting the absent puppy of the title to represent Lola’s lost youth and the happiness she once shared with Doc. And the playwright overstates Lola’s yearning for a connection, triggering her compulsive babbling the minute anyone cracks open her door, whether it’s the postman (Lyle Kanouse), the milkman (Matthew J. Williamson), Marie’s horny jock boyfriend (Brian J. Smith) or an industrious, initially disapproving neighbor (Brenda Wehle) who turns supportive when things get ugly.
Merkerson essentially is too strong and handsome a woman to entirely fit this damaged character. It’s to her credit, though, that despite Lola’s potential to become as tiresome to us as she clearly is to Doc, the character builds slowly into a figure of quiet pathos and eventual emotional devastation. Her hurt silences have a capacity to move that her words often lack.
When the dream of Little Sheba’s return gives way to reality in the end, Merkerson’s face and her deadened body language tell us everything we need to know about Lola’s sad awakening, without Inge’s dialogue laboriously having to spell it out.
Similarly, Anderson communicates the frustrations of a life turned sour, investing truthfulness in an over-determined role in which his simmering menace is telegraphed from the start. Anderson and Merkerson are not entirely believable as a co-dependent couple but he conveys the sorrow of a man gone to seed and the awkward resentment of someone unable to accept personal responsibility for the compromised fulfillment of his life. Despite its inevitability, his meltdown, when he falls off the wagon and turns on Lola, is shocking and powerful.
The dissipation of that power in the final scene is due more to softness in the writing than in the direction or cast. In addition to Merkerson and Anderson, strong characterizations are contributed by Smith and Wehle. However, while Kazan has been a consistently intriguing stage presence in a series of recent New York roles, her Broadway debut seems less-than-ideal casting, giving Marie a self-absorbed, unsympathetic edge that blunts the girl’s beguiling spell over her landlords.
Ultimately, despite its expressive central performances and forceful emotional crescendo, the MTC production is most interesting as a period piece dealing with subjects such as alcoholism, domestic violence, sex and pregnancy out of wedlock, long before they became standard-issue dramatic fodder.