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In `Sheba,' despair eclipses a marriage

S. Epatha Merkerson gains strength as the play moves along at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

June 26, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

In case you're wondering why there haven't been many major revivals of William Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba," two words should clear up the mystery: Shirley Booth. The performances she gave on Broadway in 1950 and on film in 1952 -- winning both a Tony and an Oscar -- sealed the deal. No reason for anyone to compete with that kind of blowsy perfection.

For much of the new production of the play that opened Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre under the direction of Michael Pressman, the wisdom of this decision was confirmed. No one awaited S. Epatha Merkerson's portrayal of Lola, the lazybones housewife married to the recovering alcoholic Doc, more eagerly than I did. A great admirer of her stage work, I welcome any furlough from her long-running engagement as Lt. Anita Van Buren on "Law & Order" that brings her back to the theater, where she equally belongs. But to put the matter in a nutshell, there seemed too wide a gulf between her bright, independent snappiness and the character's stunted neediness.

Still, one should never question the judgment of a performer as canny as Merkerson. When the pathos clobberingly arrives, as it inevitably does with Inge, all thoughts of Booth fall by the wayside, as Merkerson makes the role utterly her own. It takes a while, but you come to understand the emotional fragility and cornered, mute complexity that drew her to play a woman who seems so limited and dull-witted when she's calling her husband "Daddy," prancing around her newspaper-strewn living room to the radio and spying on her flirty college-coed boarder's busy love life.

Set in an unnamed Midwestern town, "Come Back, Little Sheba" plays today like a period piece, a time-capsule drama of Freudian Americana in which the exposition is as heavy-handed as the subtext is heavy-breathing. Inge, a closeted homosexual whose chronic depression eventually led to his suicide, could be described as our dramatist of erotic discontent. Like Tennessee Williams, the friend and onetime lover to whom he was often punishingly compared, he was lured by loneliness and libidinous despair.

Roiling with phallic imagery (including javelins, broom handles and an infamous hatchet), "Come Back, Little Sheba" invites you not only to psychoanalyze its characters but to put the playwright on the couch as well. Yet the gash from which Inge's inspiration bled was anything but phony -- and his woundedness still has a way of touching our own. You might violently disagree with this judgment if you stay just for the cumbersome first act, which sets up the psychological and plot mechanics with the subtlety of a rubber mallet. Doc (Alan Rosenberg), a chiropractor who's working his steps in Alcoholics Anonymous, doesn't seem to have much in common anymore with his wife, who has let herself go in middle age. Theirs was a forced marriage that resulted in a miscarriage and a fate of childlessness. Lola, noted once for her swell looks, can't figure out what to do with herself. Mops and buckets don't hold any allure for her, and the radio isn't much fun when there isn't anyone to dance with.

At times of despondency, Lola opens the kitchen door and cries out for Sheba, the dog that's been haunting her dreams ever since it vanished. Thank heavens she has Marie (an ebullient Jenna Gavigan) on hand to keep her distracted. An art student who rents the spare bedroom, this perky young woman enjoys sketching the male physique, which is fine and dandy as far as ogling Lola is concerned. In fact, she can't get enough of the romantic soap opera her boarder is enacting under her own roof.

Doc, who seems a bit tantalized himself, doesn't like the way his wife is abetting their tenant's looseness. Turk (Josh Cooke, in a gamely comic turn), a local jock who's always hanging around, is permitted to come and go as he pleases -- with or without his clothes on. And when a telegram arrives from Bruce (Bill Heck), the man Marie intends ultimately to marry, Lola steams it open for her own delectation and proposes to have an elaborate dinner party in his honor.

Rosenberg's portrayal is too dour to spotlight the frustrated sexuality that Burt Lancaster brought to the role on-screen. Here, the fury precipitating Doc's falling off the wagon seems more like moral disgust at his wife's laxity than repressed desire for Marie. Somber and slow-moving, Rosenberg's Doc could be an advertisement for Prozac were it not for his retro clothes. What you take away from his performance is the regret of marrying young, when looks and charm outweigh character compatibility. But unfortunately, he's not just operating on a low flame -- his pilot light seems to have gone out.

If there was once a great passion between Doc and Lola, there aren't many vestiges of it left. Nor is there much theatrical chemistry between Rosenberg and Merkerson, who don't exactly seem bonded to each other for better or worse.

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