Monday, March 6, 2017

Come Back, Little Sheba

Elia Kazan once said of William Inge that he wrote with "quiet terror". This is a perfect characterization of Come Back, Little Sheba, produced in repertory with Picnic by Off-Broadway's The Transport Group. This 1950s drama begins in the midwestern home of Doc (Joseph Kilinski) and Lola (Heather Mac Rae) Delaney. Marie (Hannah Elless) is an art student boarding in their home, and from the opening moments Doc's attraction to the beautiful young Hannah is palpable. His aversion to her playboy boyfriend Turk (David T. Patterson) goes beyond paternal protection and verges on jealousy. It is revealed early in act I that Doc suffers from alcoholism and Lola encourages his sobriety by asking him to repeat the serenity prayer. This is the only the tip of the iceberg of difficult themes examined in Inge's first play.

Jack Cummings III's production is staged in the round, which allows the audience of under 200 to observe the action up close, as if the characters are under a microscope. The dented kitchen cabinets, scratched coffee table, and torn couch depict a middle class lifestyle and a couple that could have been so much more. The Delaneys married young when Lola, the prettiest girl in her high school, became pregnant. They lost the baby and were unable to have more children, beginning a cycle of loss that included losing their dog, Little Sheba. Lola frequently dreams of Little Sheba and often calls out to her from the front door, as if in a trance. Mac Rae slips into a child-like state when she references her missing dog. Lola does not have the words to express the incredible void in her life and clinging to Little Sheba is her way of holding onto the life that passed her by.

The emotional climax in act II is extremely difficult to watch, but it also features the strongest acting. Doc realizes that Marie has had sex with Turk and he spins out of control, finding solace in a bottle of whisky. Unable to cope with Marie's lost innocence, he stumbles home and takes decades of despair out on Lola. Kilinski's portrayal of an alcoholic at the end of his rope is absolutely gut wrenching. He is erratic, twitchy, and the look in his eye as he berates Lola is nothing short of murderous. His insults are shocking as he calls her fat and a slut. Mac Rae's Lola is resolute on the outside while she is clearly crumbling inside, listening to her husband dig into every insecurity she feels. The most uplifting moment in the show occurs when the neighbor, Mrs. Coffman (Jennifer Piech) comes to her rescue. Her strength and nurturing keeps Lola from falling apart. A few days later, Doc returns and apologizes, though for what he does not remember, realizing how much he needs his wife to retain some semblance of normalcy.

In the final scene, Lola discusses a recent dream and agrees to stop calling for Little Sheba. Doc replies that it doesn't make much sense to continue, and she goes back to scrambling his eggs. They have resumed life as usual, but has anything really been resolved? This is an unfortunate reality for so many small town families as life must go on, and realizing ones dreams is secondary.

The show's themes are heavy, and the small size of the theatre and proximity to the actors increase the intensity exponentially. It is crucial to go into the show in the correct mindset. You cannot see this piece and expect to go about your day normally. It gets under your skin and makes you examine your own family, particularly if you grew up in the Midwest. 

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