Monday, January 28, 2008

Come Back, Little Sheba

If it hadn’t been for a lead-footed taxi driver, I would have arrived at the theatre so late my press tickets would have already been turned in at the box office. I’m so used to 3 p.m. curtains on Sunday that I forgot this one was for 2. At 1:25 I was casually chatting on the phone with my cousin in Baltimore about how nice our surprise party for my mother’s 90th birthday had been the day before. I hung up and all of a sudden realized the show was at 2. I threw on some clothes, grabbed my pocketbook and jumped in a taxi. I asked the driver to go as fast as he could and he did; when we hit traffic in the theatre district I got out and ran. And I made it! Fortunately this revival of “Come Back, Little Sheba” was worth all the rushing.

The play, as you probably know, is rather depressing, but the experience of seeing it is enlivening because the performances are all so outstanding. S. Epatha Merkerson’s portrayal of Lola, a lonely housewife in a loveless marriage, shows a woman desperately trying to keep her pain from overwhelming her. Merkerson makes her so achingly real I wanted to go to Lola and give her some praise and encouragement, to help her see she has value. Her life with Doc, a repressed alcoholic chiropractor (Kevin Anderson), has not turned out the way she had expected when she was young and pretty.

Doc’s life hasn’t gone according to expectation either. He had planned to become a doctor, but that goal was abandoned years earlier after Lola became pregnant before they were married. They wed hastily, but the baby died and Lola couldn’t have more children. Lola and Doc have been going through the motions of a marriage ever since.

Moments break through when it seems Doc still loves Lola, which makes it all the sadder when he inevitably falls off the wagon and lashes out at her with all the rage he’s been burying for so many years. Anderson plays it just right. This scene could be disastrous with a less gifted actor, but Anderson strikes just the right balance for a man full of despair and disillusionment who has finally reached the breaking point. It’s good to see this actor back on Broadway in a solid dramatic role. He was the best Biff I’ve ever seen when he did “Death of a Salesman” in the late 1990s, but the last time I saw him on stage was in a dreadful musical call “Brooklyn,” which was a real waste of his talent. I also loved him as Father Ray in the short-lived, too-good-for-television series “Nothing Sacred.”

Scenic designer James Noone should be commended for creating a set that matches the mood of despair and decline. I felt the tightness of the shabby little house, with its dining room rented out for extra cash. A backdrop of other houses and buildings close by added to the feel of being penned in and suffocating.

The Little Sheba of the title was a dog Lola loved and still dreams about. Although it’s been awhile since the dog disappeared, Lola continues to stand out front in the evening and call for her: “Come back, Little Sheba.” It’s just one more indication of Lola’s refusal to accept reality, and it’s one of the eeriest. Her voice is so full of longing and the struggle to hang on. Of course Little Sheba isn’t coming back anymore than Lola’s youth or happiness or desirability.

Shirley Booth won a Tony when she played Lola in the 1950 original production. (She also won an Oscar for her movie portrayal.) I don’t know who will win the best actress Tony this year, but I do know Merkerson will be in the running. She’s wonderful. Her performance will be remembered for a long, long time.

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