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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA
at the Biltmore Theatre

SOUNDS OF SILENCE
By Bill Stevenson

  Kevin Anderson and S. Epatha Merkerson/PH:Joan Marcus

It may be a cliché, but the expression lives of quiet desperation comes to mind more than once during the Manhattan Theatre Club's revival of William Inge's 1950 drama Come Back, Little Sheba. This is its first Broadway revival, an indication of how Inge's naturalistic plays have fallen out of fashion in recent decades. While Sheba feels rather dated and gets off to a slow start, it becomes a moving portrait of a troubled marriage. The kitchen-sink drama also offers a pair of meaty roles, and S. Epatha Merkerson and Kevin Anderson sink their teeth into them.

Merkerson (Lt. Anita Van Buren on Law & Order) plays Lola, the role that earned Shirley Booth a Tony and an Oscar. Childless and now dogless-since her beloved poodle Sheba has recently disappeared-Lola is a bored housewife who rarely has enough energy to clean the house. She and her husband Doc (Kevin Anderson) seem to have a happy, if dull, marriage. But we learn that Doc had to marry Lola when she became pregnant, and they lost the child due to a miscarriage. Doc had to settle for being a chiropractor instead of an MD and is a recovering alcoholic. After he discovers that their pretty college-student boarder, Marie (Zoe Kazan), spent the night with her sometime boyfriend Turk (Brian J. Smith), Doc's jealousy leads him back to the bottle. The play reaches its dramatic climax with the drunken Doc lashing out at Lola, threatening her with an ax, and being dragged against his will to a hospital.

Other than that wrenching scene, most of Sheba is a fairly mild character study of a sweet, lonely woman and her upright husband, who is disappointed in how his life has turned out. It's an old-fashioned, well-made play that includes plenty of mundane chitchat as Inge introduces his large cast of Midwestern characters. It's a period piece, and Inge isn't too subtle with the symbolism (Sheba is the canine embodiment of Lola's lost youth).

But Inge knew how to construct a drama, his dialogue always rings true, and it's hard not to root for his flawed yet sympathetic characters. Lola is one of the playwright's most affecting creations, and Merkerson gives a beautifully understated performance. Instead of straining for pathos, her low-key delivery is simple, unforced, and ultimately very moving. Anderson is just as convincing-a model of propriety one moment and battling his demons the next. Director Michael Pressman also elicits solid, unshowy work from Kazan, Smith, and the rest of the cast.

While Inge's plays haven't aged as well as the best work of his contemporaries Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, they're more than merely time capsules of mid-20th-century America. When actors like Merkerson and Anderson breathe fresh life into his characters, Inge's melancholic and deeply felt writing remains undeniably poignant.

 


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