A gripping slice of contemporary Midwest life when it made its 1950 Broadway debut, William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba has now become a compelling period piece … and a superb 21st Century revival at A Noise Within.
Movie buffs will recall Inge’s play from its 1952 film adaptation, which won Shirley Booth the Best Actress Oscar for her role as 50ish housewife Lola Delaney, wed as a pregnant 20something to medical student “Doc” Delaney only to lose both the baby and her husband’s love, their marriage having forced Doc to abandon a career in medicine for one in chiropractic with only his nickname to remind him of his shattered hopes and dreams.
Sweet young co-ed Marie rents the spare room in Doc and Lola’s house, but she’s mostly at school or spending time with classmate Turk, leaving Lola with only the radio to keep her company on her long lonely days, or an occasional brief chat with next-door mother-of-seven Mrs. Coffman, or the precious moments she can cajole the neighborhood postman into a brief visit over lemonade or coax the fit young milkman to demonstrate the pushups that have helped him build the torso he’s so proud of.
We learn early on that Doc is a recovering alcoholic whose now eleven months of sobriety can’t erase Lola’s memories of his years of drinking, getting into fights, and causing so much trouble that his wife never knew what was going to happen, nor can his nearly one year on the wagon calm her fears of a possible relapse.
With so little going for her, it’s no wonder Lola has started dreaming of Little Sheba, the puppy who wandered away one long-ago day never to return, rather like the hopes and dreams a young Lola once harbored for her future.
Just as playwright Samuel D. Hunter—perhaps not coincidentally the winner of the 2013 William Inge Theatre Festival’s Otis Guernsey New Voices in the American Theatre Playwriting Award—explores “ordinary” Idaho lives in his contemporary dramas, so did William Inge give mid-20th-century Broadway audiences a glimpse of middle America, his snapshot of 1950s life now providing a fascinating look back at a time gone by—a time when women like Lola and girls like Marie had only one option, and it started with the letter “m.” For Lola, marriage meant giving her unborn child a name. For Marie, it signified a financially secure future with straight-arrow fiancé Bruce, blissfully unaware of his sweetheart’s sexual shenanigans with her hunky classmate Turk. (Oh how 1950s audiences must have gasped at Marie’s cheating ways, and oh how ahead of her time the teenage vixen appears to 2014 eyes.)
Deborah Strang brings Lola Delaney back to life for a 21st-century audience under the pitch-perfect direction of Geoff Elliott (who plays Doc) and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, the A Noise Within treasure downright brilliant in her depiction of a woman whose romantic dreams have been dashed by life’s realities, yet who holds on to the slenderest thread of hope, echoed every time she cries out a plaintive “Come back, Little Sheba.”
Costar Elliott’s best work has been in more “theatrical” roles like his star turns in Man Of La Mancha, A Touch Of The Poet, The Chairs, and Twelfth Night; thus, it’s a treat to see how powerful the ANW linchpin can be when taking it down a notch or two as Doc, whose quiet, gentlemanly ways mask a man smoldering with frustration, disappointment, and regrets. Later, when Doc lets loose in Act Two as we suspect he will given the quart of whisky kept in plain view “for company,” the results are all the more devastating.
Strang and Elliott are surrounded by a uniformly splendid supporting cast beginning with the luminous Lili Fuller as Marie, a blend of sweet and saucy that proves so irresistible, it’s no wonder the adorable nymphet has earned the affections of Lola and Doc (the latter perhaps a tad lasciviously so) along with the romantic attention of Turk, played by L.A. newcomer Miles Gaston Villanueva in a performance equal parts classically trained actor and classically handsome leading man.
A terrific Jill Hill lets us see the kind heart beneath Mrs. Coffman’s businesslike surface, milkman John Klopping couldn’t be more appealing in his brief scene opposite Strang, and Paul Culos does fine work too as salt-of-the-earth Bruce, with James Ferrero and young Jack Elliott providing solid backup in cameo roles. Only the casting of Mitchell Edmonds (excellent as always) as both postman and Doc’s 12-Step mentor Ed Anderson proves confusing. Have these two distinct characters been combined, since Ed wears postman trousers and Strang’s Lola calls him “Postman Anderson.”
Doc and Lola’s rundown mess of a house has been brought to vivid life by Stephen Gifford—with props to prop master Kristina Teves’ piles of unwashed clothes and 1950s paraphernalia—in a scenic design that allows us to look through walls to lines of neighborhood laundry hung out to dry. Leah Piehl’s period-perfect costumes and sound designer Doug Newell’s Hit Parade-filled soundtrack further recreate mid-20th Century middle America as do Caity Hawksley’s marvelous hair, wig, and makeup designs. Ken Booth’s lighting design is his accustomed exquisite work, with Ken Merckx once again doing his fight choreography thing to perfection.
Michelle L. Gutierrez is stage manager and Emily Lehrer assistant stage manager. Daniel Czypinski is production manager.
A Noise Within may have built its reputation on Shakespeare, Moliere, Shaw, Ibsen, and other masters of the long-ago past, however from this reviewer’s earliest exposure to “California’s Home For The Classics” back in the early ‘90s, ANW’s more contemporary revivals—Miller, Williams, Wilder, Odets, and Inge—have been my personal favorites. Come Back, Little Sheba is no exception. It is classic American theater at its finest.
A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd, Pasadena.
April 13, 2014
Photos: Craig Schwartz