Monday, September 3, 2012

Lola and Doc: Come Back Little Sheba at Shaw

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
The Delaneys live in a Midwestern college town, and what sends Doc off the rails is a fling between their pretty co-ed boarder, Marie (leggy Julia Course, who reads all her lines with the same perky intonation), and a jock named Turk (Kevin McGarry, who brings some wit to the role). Doc wants to think of Marie as the soul of purity; Turk makes him uneasy, because he sees his own youthful, randy self in the boy – the part he blanches at now, and not just because of his sexual indulgence. (Inge’s real subject, in all his plays, is the conflict between sexual impulse and repression, especially in the Midwest in the fifties. That’s what Picnic is about, and though it’s set in the twenties, not the fifties, sexual repression literally maddens the teenage heroine of his screenplay Splendor in the Grass, played by Natalie Wood.) So when Doc discovers that Marie has been sleeping with Turk, he goes for the bottle.

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
With Merkerson Lola’s loneliness was piercing, not only in these scenes and in the scenes with Doc, where she clearly wanted something from him that he’d long since stopped thinking about giving her, but also in the scenes where she rushed about to answer the door when the milkman or the mailman came, so she wouldn’t miss a chance to brighten her dim day with these brief visitors. And when they left her eyes grew frightened and far-away. That’s where Corrine Koslo’s performance overlaps with Merkerson’s. She doesn’t poeticize the character the way Merkerson and Booth did, but her loneliness is palpable, especially when, left alone when Doc and Marie have departed for the morning, she holds onto the receiver after someone who’s called her number by mistake hangs up. Koslo is a fine actress (I loved her in the Shaw’s production of The Entertainer by John Osborne a couple of seasons ago), and she has some wonderful moments in this show, as when, late in act one, she tries to remind Doc of their courtship, not comprehending why he shrinks from the memory, and when she starts to Charleston to the Gershwins’ “Lady, Be Good” on the radio and is horrified when Marie wanders in. (She suddenly feels the distance between their ages and becomes embarrassed.) But her way of getting Lola’s compulsive chattering, to fill the empty spaces in her daily life and reach out to anyone who’s crossed her path, is to talk too fast, and her behavior with the postman and the milkman makes her look foolish, which is a mistake. Her performance overcomes these flaws in the second act, though her reading of the speech at the end, in which she tells Doc about her latest (symbolic) dream about Little Sheba – another one opens the play – sounds like an attempt at improvisational naturalism, which goes against the grain of the writing. The monologue is hardly deathless prose, but it’s carefully calibrated; you have to catch Inge’s rhythms to get it to work.

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.

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