Come Back, Little Sheba on Broadway

William Inge was one of the notables of mid-20th-century American playwriting, often mentioned in the same breath as Williams and Miller, even though his relatively slimmer output garners him fewer words in history surveys (or might that be because he was gay?). After the success of his second play, Come Back, Little Sheba, on Broadway in 1950, Inge went on to write Picnic (1953), which won that year’s Pulitzer Prize, Bus Stop (1955), and Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957). He won an Academy Award for his first screenplay, Splendor in the Grass (1960), which starred Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. According to the Inge Center web site, the playwright became depressed after two plays he wrote in the early 60s were unsuccessful. He left New York for LA, where he committed suicide in 1973.

This Manhattan Theatre Club-produced revival of Inge’s 1950s realist drama was first staged in Los Angeles at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. The production opens on Broadway on January 24, 2008, starring S. Epatha Merkerson, affectionately known as Lt. Anita Van Buren on the long-running, original Law and Ordertelevision series. Merkerson plays Lola, the apparently desperate and deluded housewife whose attempt to keep her marriage intact and “normal” drives the plot.

Sheba is a conventional play, to the extent that it’s rife with all the tropes of realism: the “secrets” that sour its relationships; the repressed desires that wind up exploding and ruining its characters; the compromises that make the lives it portrays ones of rue and regret. But in this production, rather than providing a recipe for the obvious, director Michael Pressman and his leading woman find nuances and depths to these familiar stories that make Sheba vital and resonant.

James Noone’s soaring set quotes the claustrophobic domestic spaces that Jo Mielziner captured in his original 1949 design for Death of a Salesman. The home in which Lola’s unhappiness unfolds is a multi-level, multi-room space with doors and stairs and furniture backed up against imaginary walls, a physical embodiment of the porousness between a family’s private and public lives. Lola’s kitchen is a bright but strangely empty space, with none of the hominess usually ascribed to the nerve center of nurture and sustenance. The living room, at the opening curtain, is furnished with mis-matched pieces and a threadbare rug, and strewn with the detritus of careless lives: newspapers and magazines, fresh laundry and dirty clothes.

The boarder’s room off the living room is decorated in detail, as renter Marie’s love life is as central to the plot machinations as the room’s location suggests. Up the stairs, balanced precariously over the action, is the shared bath and master bedroom, suggested with doors but revealed by the bedroom’s lack of walls, where an always disheveled bed figures the entanglements of thwarted desire that thread through the story.

The set changes, which require reorienting props and pieces of the décor in between scenes, are directed as part of the play’s life. As stagehands come on to attend to various objects, the actors move around the set in character, making transitions in the play’s timescape. The dream-like simultaneity of the play’s action and the production’s logistical needs let you see the characters in even more of their quotidian reality as they move pensively from one room to the next in the half light.

The set suggests both the home’s solidity and its precariousness, just as Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes lend the characters both dignity and disrepute. Merkerson wears the housedresses that encaged 1950s housewives, all ties and bows and cheap cloth wrapped around the loosening figures of female middle age. Doc (Steppenwolf’s Kevin Anderson) wears suspenders to hold up already high-waisted trousers tightly pulled over his expanding waist-line, foiling his attempt at style and leaving him slightly ridiculous looking. This is a couple playing at the conventions of 1950s domesticity, and failing, badly.

Shirley Booth originated Lola on Broadway and in the subsequent film version, for which she won an Academy Award. Her simpering, foolish flibbertigibbet of a woman haunts the character, and provides a sharp contrast for Merkerson’s reinterpretation. In the play’s first act, she puts her own spin on what appear to be Lola’s self-delusions about her relationship and her life, playing the woman as more languid and dreamy than Booth’s always bustling, high-pitched fussbudget.

But as the second act moves through its devastating unraveling, Merkerson reveals Lola as a surprisingly strong but trapped woman trying frantically to hold onto a marriage she knows was a mistake from the start, struggling to be a partner to a husband whose alcoholism destroys them both.

The secrets alluded to at the beginning find the harsh light of day at the end, as Doc’s hatred for the woman whose pregnancy trapped him into a loveless marriage explodes in violence. Lola’s attempt to hang on to the innocence that let her trust her young lover 25 years ago becomes more and more painful, as it’s clear their liaison produced only loss. The baby they inadvertently conceived died when they used a substandard doctor to attend to the delivery; their shotgun wedding was obviated by the disappearance of their progeny, its unhappiness exacerbated by the couple’s inability to bear another child. Lola calls Doc “Daddy,” underlining ironically (although she always says it earnestly) the emptiness of their union.

Marie, their boarder (Zoe Kazan), inflames an already fraught relationship with her flirtatious presence, taunting Doc with casual intimacies that quicken his step. When Marie flaunts 1950s propriety by sleeping with Turk, the young man with whom she cheats on her out-of-town boyfriend, Doc’s carefully manufactured moral code falls apart and knocks him off the wagon of sobriety he’s maintained for one uneasy year.

The language of Alcoholics Anonymous’s 12-step program (still relatively new to American culture in 1950, and much more stigmatized than its commonplace presence today) to which Doc and Lola cling barely holds his bitterness and incipient rage in check. Even though he attends meetings and sponsors other alcoholics, helping them through brutal visits to the local hospital’s drunk tank, and even though Lola asks him to repeat his daily affirmation, neither Lola nor Doc truly believe his nature has changed. Director Pressman gradually builds the production’s impending doom, letting spectators recognize that what we see as Lola’s inanity is really her frantic attempt to shore up the façade of her relationship’s normalcy.

In 2008, that façade already seems cracked. The production suggests that the conventions of heterosexual marriage were already rotten in the 50s, even as American ideology worked so hard to construct the nuclear family living happily in the suburbs as the sine qua non of such relationships. Both Lola and Doc suffocate in the confines of their home, fabricating intimacy and performing normalcy as they suffer their emotional and social isolation.

Doc is jealous of Marie and Turk, and funnels his repressed desire into flirting with her under the guise of paternalism. Lola likes to watch the young couple’s romantic couplings; she openly admits that she spies on them. While the audience can read her voyeurism as benign longing for her own lost beauty and youth, her watching also reeks of sexual perversion, as though she’s doomed to lurk about the corners of other people’s passion, feeding her own desire vicariously.

Their neighbor, Mrs. Coffman (Brenda Wehle), who’s suspect enough that Lola first wonders if she has poisoned the missing old beloved dog, Sheba, becomes the play’s reproving Greek chorus, stepping into and out of their home and the action with her thin lips pinched, tsk tsking her way through their lives as she first judges Lola’s inadequate housekeeping and then pities her victimization.

Inge suggests that even those with the most in common—lonely housewives chained to deadening routines—must invest in appearances of decorum instead of reaching out to each other with sympathy and agency. When Mrs. Coffman inadvertently visits after Doc’s rampage, she wordlessly helps Lola right the overturned furniture and clean up broken glass, replacing the vestiges of her dignity without suggesting that Lola change anything.

The Marie/Turk subplot offers interesting feminist resonances. Temporarily separated from her socially upstanding boyfriend, Marie embarks on an affair with a man who’s all brawn and no brains, whose only option for social intercourse is sexual. Marie clearly feels something for Turk, but she tells Lola that he’s “not the marrying kind.” Inge neatly reverses the charge usually leveled against “loose” women, painting Marie as the sexual opportunist who knows she’ll soon settle down with a more appropriate man.

When her boyfriend Bruce appears at the house, he’s straitlaced, dull, and judgmental, impatient with Lola’s fussing and already puffed up by the obligations to which he’s carefully calibrated his life. His appearance on the scene underlines Marie’s compromises and Inge’s intimation that social propriety requires emotional and spiritual sacrifice.

Merkerson is a revelation as Lola. Casting an African American woman in the wife’s role without changing a word of the text and casting the rest of the characters as white (with the exception of one of Doc’s AA friends, played by African American actor Keith Randolph Smith) layers the play with racial nuances unavailable when a white woman performs the part. In many ways, Lola’s servitude is more readily apparent; in one key scene, when Lola’s made a fancy dinner for Marie and her visiting boyfriend to which Doc, out on a bender, fails to show, Lola announces that she won’t eat with the couple, but will be their “butler.”

Her declaration productively underlines Lola’s indentured servitude, as Merkerson’s race (and her maid-like adornments) suddenly becomes evident in ways it doesn’t through the rest of the production. This color-blind casting in fact underlines gender commonality across race. We’re no doubt meant to see this choice through a 21st century perspective, since in fact, a mixed-marriage in the 1950s would have been scandalous.

Merkerson slows Lola’s tempo, reading her lines with a drawling, southern-inflected cadence that points up her race more than trying to obscure it. Her voice is lovely and wistful, rich and warm, while her face seems frozen with her effort to make something nice out of a life wasted in a loveless lie of a relationship. Where Booth seemed convinced of her own revisionist history, Merkerson’s performance reveals the labor required to construct such stories, and the psychic and spiritual toll they take.

Instead of hiding her sadness behind relentless movement and meaningless domestic busyness, Merkerson’s Lola is almost indolent in her melancholy. When we first see her, she’s lying in bed in that upper room, wearing a cream-color full slip and staring quietly into space. There’s something erotic and charged about Merkerson’s lassitude; she could be a heroine from the steamier bloodlines of Williams’s oeuvre.

In another scene, left alone in the house, Lola turns on “Taboo,” a radio program that promises covert seductions to its lonely-hearted listeners. Lola drapes herself on the couch, preparing to luxuriate in some physical fantasy; her guilt is palpable when she’s startled by Doc’s unexpected return from work.

Merkerson’s performance is fully embodied and sexually charged. Her invitations to the milkman and the mailman and even to Mrs. Coffman to come sit, stay, have a cup of coffee, listen to a story, to just be with her, all have unsettling, slightly unseemly sexual overtones. And yet over the course of the play, the men who first reluctantly enter her home glancing at their watches and rolling their eyes gain affection and respect for Lola.

As her domestic strife becomes more obvious, they begin to see her as someone real, rather than a caricature of the happy housewife she once performed for them so aggressively. The mailman writes her a letter just so that she’ll get one, and the milkman proudly shows her his picture in a physique magazine (shadings of Inge’s homosexuality, as such rags were notorious as the gay porn of their time).

Although Mrs. Coffman would be a highly unlikely sexual liaison for Lola, Lola’s situation echoes that of the much more respectable middle-class housewife of the same era Julianna Moore plays in the film version of Michael Cunningham’s book The Hours. The emptiness and indignities of heterosexual domesticity fan Moore’s character’s lesbian longing and propel her out of the family nightmare.

No such redemption is possible for Lola. Her boredom is stultifying (Doc prevents her from going to work), and she’s utterly dependent on others in her version of house arrest. Her estranged family won’t take her back, now 25 years after her sexual indiscretion, even though her drunken husband has threatened her life, brandishing a machete in their living room, calling her names, and promising to “cut the fat off” of her with his weapon.

When drink lets Doc drop his mask, the audience sees the horror Lola has put up with for 25 years, and suddenly, her behavior makes a terrible kind of sense. She’s terrorized in her own home, with no way to escape. She has no means, no skills, nowhere else to go. Yet as Merkerson plays her, Lola’s unflinching resolve to survive outweighs her terror. When Doc returns, chastened, from his short rehabilitative hospital stay, he’s pink and pitiful, helpless as a mewling newborn, and begs Lola not to leave him.

With one look in response, Merkerson’s devastating expression takes in her present and her future, chained to a mercurial alcoholic who will descend into madness and claw his way back to temporary redemption again and again, leaving her to fend off his murderous rage and to soldier through a fake life. She walks Doc to their kitchen table and proceeds to cook for him as they glance at each other warily, pretending, again and always, that their suburban prison houses something real and nourishing.

Pressman’s wrenching production makes the realist conventions of Inge’s play critical of the very domestic story they structure. This revival is one of the most progressive realist dramas I’ve ever seen produced, not because the director deconstructed it, but because he and his cast fight their way to the horrible core of the situations it describes. They don’t blame their characters, regardless of their ethical or moral failings, but instead indict a culture that insists that heterosexual, coupled, suburban domesticity is the best way to live.

No wonder second wave American feminism asserted itself a decade after this play was first produced.

The Feminist Spectator

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