Friday, April 24, 2015

Come Back, Little Sheba at the Huntington: An Elusive Balance

Adrianne Krstansky and Derek Hasenstab in Come Back, Little Sheba. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Come Back, Little Sheba is the drama that put playwright William Inge on the map when it was produced on Broadway in 1950. Shirley Booth created the role of Lola, the slovenly, nostalgic wife of Doc Delaney, a chiropractor in a small Midwestern college town. (Her legendary performance is preserved in the 1952 movie version.) The play, which David Cromer has staged for Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company in its South End space at the Calderwood Pavilion, is about two people who have, in different ways, failed to accept the passing of their youth. Doc impregnated Lola when he was a medical student; he dropped out to marry her, they lost the baby, and he’s lived in regret for the sexual indiscretion that resulted in the loss of the life he’d planned for himself. Alcohol fueled that regret and disappointment; it also ate up his inheritance. When the play begins he’s been sober for a year, attending AA meetings regularly. Lola, lonely at home while Doc is seeing his patients, luxuriates in her memories of the youthful amorousness he’s trying to forget. (Her lost puppy, Little Sheba, is a rather obvious symbol of her vanished youth.) Their distinctive attitudes toward the past are illuminated by their reaction to their boarder, Marie, a coed with a serious boyfriend back home in Cincinnati who is carrying on a casual affair with a football player named Turk. Lola is touched by their lovemaking; it reminds her of her own romance with Doc, when she was young and pretty. Doc prefers to think of Marie as pure; he doesn’t like Turk, who he thinks isn’t good enough for her. The truth is that Turk’s sexuality recalls his own twenty years ago. The incontrovertible evidence that Turk and Marie are sleeping together forces a confrontation with his own past that knocks him for a loop – and right off the wagon.

The play doesn’t have as many colors as Inge’s subsequent stage hits, Bus Stop and Picnic, or their range of humanity; except for the Delaneys, the characters are either underwritten (Marie, Turk) or small, one- or two-scene parts. But Lola and Doc are compelling figures, and Inge is a skillful dramatist and a brilliant psychologist. He’s the epitome of the mid-twentieth-century American realist, whose work is alive in detail and subtext. You can see why David Cromer, whose formidable mounting of Our Town – which began in Chicago, ran for a couple of years in New York, and was imported by the Huntington in 2012 – climaxed in a profound and unexpected use of American realism in the scene of Emily’s return to earth, would be drawn to Inge. His production begins with a forthright acknowledgement of Inge’s style, as Doc (Derek Hasenstab) runs water in the kitchen sink for coffee and lights a burner on the stove to brew it.

So it’s odd that Hasenstab doesn’t dig sufficiently into the subtext in the first act. Doc keeps a bottle of whisky in a kitchen cupboard as a reminder of the path he never wants to take again, but everyone in the audience can do the psychological math: when an unhappy sober alcoholic runs into a situation that triggers the memories he’s repressed, we all know what’s going to happen to that bottle. Hasenstab’s Doc doesn’t seem especially unhappy until he comes face to face with proof that Turk is sneaking into Marie’s bed after he and Lola are asleep. You don’t get a sense of his struggle with a life he never wanted: a chiropractic practice rather than a medical one, a chatty, overweight wife who doesn’t keep house for him. And then, when he explodes in a drunken rage in act two, insulting Lola bitterly and finally going after her with a hatchet, the meltdown isn’t convincing. Hasenstab’s best scenes are the one where his AA sponsor (Christopher Tarjan) and another friend from the program (Jeremy Browne) arrive to take him to dry out at the city hospital; and his last one, where he shows up at home some days later, sober and contrite and frantic for his wife’s forgiveness. These are also the best staged and most affecting moments in Cromer’s production.

Nael Nacer, Adrianne Krstansky, and Marie Polizzano in Come Back, Little Sheba. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

As Lola, Adrianne Krstansky has another kind of dramatic balance problem. She’s often touching, and she does some terrific things with Lola’s physicality. But in act one she tends to take the character’s intellectual limitations to an extreme, and then in act two, once she picks up the phone to report Doc’s disappearance – and the disappearance of the whisky – to his sponsor, she suddenly seems smarter and more sophisticated. Her best scene is also the final one. Inge has Lola respond wholeheartedly to Doc’s plea that she stay with him, but Cromer has staged them in separate rooms, across Stephen Dobay’s dense, effective set, and Krstansky’s Lola doesn’t answer Doc right away. We’ve heard her call her mother in another town after Doc is put in the hospital and ask if she might come home while she considers her next step, but it’s clear that her father no longer speaks to her (presumably since the pregnancy) and her mother turns her down. This phone call is a moment of desperation; here the focus is equally on its being a dead end, especially when Doc makes his plea in the final sceneand Lola doesn’t answer him right away. You can feel her weighing her options, realizing she has no others, and acceding out of entrapment as much as out of love.

Marie Polizzano’s performance as Marie presents a third example of imbalance. She plays the character as a smart, nice girl without any real contradictions. She tells Lola that she and Bruce, her steady boy friend, have agreed that neither of them needs to stay at home lonely while Marie is away at college, and that’s supposed to explain away her fling with Turk (Max Carpenter). And it might, if the play took place in the twenty-first century. But it’s set in the dead center of the twentieth, at a time when good girls who were planning to marry their boyfriends back home were emphatically not supposed to go to bed with the college boys they had no intention of leaving them for (or, for that matter, with the boys back home either). That isn’t to say that they didn’t cheat; Inge is particularly smart about the tension between sexual mores and sexual behavior. (That’s one of the themes of Picnic.) But Polizzano’s performance doesn’t register that there is any tension, or that she’s flirting with Doc when she shows up for breakfast in her nighty and jokingly asks him for a goodbye kiss before he treks to his office.

Except for Maureen Keiller, who doesn’t do much with the role of the next-door neighbor, a clean-house fiend who turns out to have a generous heart, the supporting cast is strong: Carpenter as Turk, Tarjan and Browne as the AA guys, Adam Zahler as the aging postman and Michael Knowlton as the young milkman, both of whom soften to Lola’s friendly outpourings. And I was happy to see Nael Nacer, whom I’d applauded as Sam Feinschreiber in the Huntington’s production of Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! earlier in the season, as Bruce. It’s a little role but he fills it with a mixture of impatience, authoritativeness and even a trace of man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit fifties-era anxiety. Speaking of the era, Sarah Laux’s costumes attain an effortless balance between period rightness and rightness for the characters.

– 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 is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment