Come Back, Little Sheba
Kirk Douglas Theatre
Some much-heralded playwrights writing in the middle of the last century have endured the fickle depredation of time without much of a hitch, but unfortunately the same is not true of William Inge. Picnic, Bus Stop and his other great works, like those wonderful cliché ridden plays by Clifford Odets, simply are too dated to make much sense anymore in the stepped-up, media-hyped world of today—unless they are presented with an emphasis on the period in time when they first debuted and a careful eye toward underscoring how much has changed in the ensuing 57 years.
This is especially true of Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba, now being revived with meticulous but misguided care for the CTG at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
First and foremost, the most insurmountable problem with Sheba is that the prevailing themes of marital infidelity—or, put even more innocently, lusting with the heart—and lives unraveled by substance abuse are no longer daring and thought provoking topics to electrify our jaded contemporary audiences as they were back in 1950 when this play’s New York premiere earned Inge the honor of being called the most promising playwright of that drama-rich season on Broadway.
This production of Sheba is noteworthy for the colorblind casting of the luminous S. Epatha Merkerson in the leading role of Lola, the part that won Shirley Booth both a Tony and an Oscar. Merkerson is a knockout Lola and I’m all for mixing it up racially onstage—having had the rewarding experience of appearing opposite Tessa Thompson as my daughter in Charles Mee’s Summertime at the Boston Court and sharing the day room with Chris Butler as an ingeniously nontraditional McMurphy last year in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Rubicon in Ventura—but sometimes this concept just doesn’t work here.
I remember being thrilled a decade or so ago by a completely integrated cast of Hello, Dolly, of all things, headlined by Nell Carter at the now defunct Long Beach CLO. Despite some of the audience members’ rather vocal pre-show doubts, it took everyone in attendance that opening night about 30 seconds flat to forget Dolly Levi was black and the ensemble was liberally sprinkled with actors of all ethnicities, colors and stripes.
In this mercifully more tolerant age than the one in which I grew up and as the proud father of a son as black as I am anemically white, I completely applaud taking artistic chances such as this, yet somehow, depicting Lola and her AA-subdued husband Doc’s humdrum life in the mid-20th century Midwest takes on a whole new twist in Sheba given the fact that a mixed-race relationship back then—or even in the late 60s when I myself was half of one—would not have been easily accepted by Lola’s boarder, milkman, postman, or certainly her German-accented neighbor Mrs. Coffman.
Like the late Nell Carter’s Dolly, though, I think it would be easier to buy the virtuoso Miss Merkerson as Lola if casting had gone as scheduled, with Bruce Davison appearing opposite her as her Doc, but when Davison was replaced during rehearsals by SAG’s dedicated president Alan Rosenberg as her husband, too many factors conspired against this impressively slick production that simply could not be surmounted.
The problem of artistic credibility is strained beyond hope with Rosenberg onstage as Merkerson’s husband, who in his ill-advised oddly contemporary Act One suit looks more like a Jewish New York lawyer teleported directly from 2007 and about to meet clients for lunch at Rumpelmeyer’s than he does your friendly and shakily recovering alcoholic smalltown chiropractor-slash-everyman.
Under Michael Pressman’s otherwise spot-perfect direction, this Doc hurtles two contrasting and obviously unrelated extremes, playing the character way too milquetoast when sober and completely the opposite when his hots for the couple’s comely boarder send him crashing off the ol’ proverbial wagon.
Rosenberg’s drunk scene is mighty impressive indeed, ultimately showing what a capable actor he is, but there must be some more palpable hint of the frustration and need the guy feels beforehand that leads him to such extremes with a little cooking sherry poured down his thirsty throat. Rosenberg’s first act Doc begins with and never alters his demeanor, with arms held tightly at his side and head cocked sideways in downtrodden defeat to deliver his every line in a soft-spoken monotone, before segueing into his big chance to shine (and knock poor Lola around the stage). Sadly, this ultimately makes the poor guy’s meltdown hard to fathom.
Still, Merkerson and Pressman’s fine supporting cast (particularly Jenna Gavigan as the couple’s unwittingly temptress boarder Marie and Josh Cooke as her marble-headed not-so secret paramour Turk) must be praised regardless of the metaphoric elephant in the room of this otherwise stellar mounting of Sheba.
James Noone’s set couldn’t be more impressive and all design elements, including a haunting original underlying musical score by Peter Golub, are first-rate. And above all other elements, the brilliant Merkerson finds all the subtleties of Lola’s loneliness and the underlying strength of her beaten-down 1950s housewife, giving a heartbreaking, transcendent performance sure to win awards despite the glaring miscasting of Rosenberg.
Come Back, Little Sheba plays through July 22 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; for tickets, call 213.628.2772.