|Corrine Koslo and Ric Reid in Come Back Little Sheba at the Shaw Festival (All Photos by David Cooper)|
William Inge’s reputation as a playwright seems to have outlived his plays; they don’t get revived much. But though he’s not in the class of our finest southern playwrights (Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers), his work, which embodies a 1950s realist esthetic, is interesting. The movie versions of Come Back, Little Sheba and A Loss of Roses (the film’s title is The Stripper) linger in the memory for the performances of the leading actresses, Shirley Booth and Joanne Woodward respectively, in the roles of profoundly disappointed women. That’s the Inge archetype; the spinster schoolteacher in Picnic, Rosemary, fits it too, though she’s a supporting character. One of the reasons that Picnic is Inge’s signal achievement – it’s considerably better than the popular 1955 movie suggests – is that it provides a wider spectrum of characters than the others. Still, I was pleased to see the Shaw Festival’s mounting of Sheba, even though Jackie Maxwell’s production is clumsy. It showcases two talented actors, Corrine Koslo as Lola Delaney and Ric Reid as her husband Doc, and unlike most shows it improves as it goes along: the second act is poignant, even gripping.
When the play was first produced on Broadway in 1950, Lola was played by the great Booth, opposite Sidney Blackmer and then, in the Daniel Mann movie two years later, opposite an industrious but miscast Burt Lancaster. (She won an Oscar.) Booth helped to make Inge’s frowsy, lonely Lola, adrift in nostalgia, one of the most memorable characters in American drama. Like Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie – Williams was always Inge’s inspiration – Lola was a beauty when she was young, but when she met her husband, then a bright med student, she turned down all her other suitors to concentrate on him, and she let him make love to her. When she got pregnant, he married her and gave up med school, becoming a chiropractor instead; then they lost the baby and the doctors told Lola she couldn’t conceive again. He’s known as Doc, but it’s a bitter reference to the career he had to abandon. And his disappointment compounded an intolerance for liquor; he drank away his inheritance and almost lost his practice. Now he’s been off the bottle for a couple of years; he attends AA meetings and is committed to volunteer work with active alcoholics in hospital wards. (Come Back, Little Sheba is the first play to mention AA; Doc even recites the now-familiar serenity prayer.) The key tension in the play is between Lola’s longing for her vanished youth – symbolized, rather baldly, by the lost dog, Little Sheba, she keeps calling for and dreaming about – and Doc’s shame and revulsion at his. He doesn’t want to remember giving in to his lust for her, because it ruined his life and if he acknowledges that truth he’ll start to drink again. He keeps a bottle of whiskey in the cupboard to show he can withstand temptation. But we know that a conspicuous whiskey bottle in the cupboard of a recovering drunk is like the gun introduced in the opening scene of a play: it has to come down off the shelf before the final curtain.
|Julia Course & Kevin McGarry|
It’s far from a subtle play, and Inge, unlike his mentor Williams, isn’t a poetic writer. But the themes are expertly worked through, the two main characters are certainly compelling, and in performance it can get to you. Booth’s dreamy-dumpy Lola is the raison d’être of the movie, and Laurence Olivier’s performance as Doc (which you can now see on DVD), made the 1977 TV production worth watching, despite the infelicities of the production and the by-the-book Actors Studio rendering of Lola by Joanne Woodward – all realist detail with nothing underneath to animate it. Olivier brings not only a touching sense of regret to the role but also a wounded propriety. He’s dashing, like a retired matinee idol, and he can haul out the old charm on occasion, so his ruefulness over what happened to his life hits you harder, and his repressiveness, which manifests itself in a fussy, old-maidish quality, is rather shocking. When he passes Marie’s room in the morning and hears Turk’s laugh, the pain of it almost knocks him over; when he catches Turk on the porch, having slipped out of the house by Marie’s window, the gaze of hatred he levels at the boy is so intense that when you realize that what he’s looking at is the picture of his own younger self, you almost gasp. But what’s most amazing about the performance is the way he tears into Doc’s alcoholism. The production reaches its apex when he reappears sizzled the next morning. He plays the drunk scene for comedy in the early stages, but then he gets nasty and shifts from the comic inebriate to the melodramatic villain, and the punch line – when he pulls the fancy tablecloth off the table and scatters his mother’s good china – has a force we aren’t expecting. The melodrama morphs into drama. Actually, the play becomes, for a few moments, a horror movie, when Doc goes after Lola with a hatchet. This TV adaptation was aired, for some reason, on New Year’s Eve, and of course it got terrible ratings. Certainly Olivier would have wrecked any celebrating viewer’s drunk.
The last revival of the play was by the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2008, as a vehicle for Law and Order’s S. Epatha Merkerson, and she was magnificent. Vocally she played Lola’s girlishness – her tendency toward baby talk (she sometimes calls Doc “Daddy” or “Docky”) – against her usual bluesy alto, so she swung back and forth between whiny and guttural. Physically she introduced a sensuality that made her longing for her youth explicitly carnal; you could sense it in the small sigh that came out of her early in the play when Doc massaged her neck: a professional touch for him, a sexual one for her. When Booth played the role, her delight in Marie and Turk’s spooning was the pleasure an aging woman takes in seeing the kids do what she’s too old for now, but with Merkerson it had an immediacy that suggested she was still stuck back in her youth, not just looking back sadly at it. The Shirley Temple curls and the doll she slept with didn’t work for Woodward; they were theatrical affect. But Merkerson made Lola adolescent without the aid of props or costumes. When she hung out with Marie, watching her interact with Turk, she seemed like the third wheel who doesn’t know she ought to leave when her best girl friend’s jock comes around.
|S. Epatha Merkerson as Lola|
I think that’s more Maxwell’s fault than Koslo’s, to be honest. She doesn’t latch onto the sound of Inge’s language (she didn’t in her production of Bus Stop some years back, either), and the pacing of the first act is lethal. (At two and a half hours, the show is a good fifteen or twenty minutes overlong.) Act two doesn’t have that problem, but that’s because the suspense before Doc’s inevitable soused scene, the scene itself and its aftermath, have a dramatic tension that it would be very hard to violate – and because Ric Reid is superb. His drunken display gathers power as it goes, like an avalanche.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.