Come Back, Little Sheba reveals the turbulence masked by Middle America's placid exterior.
Thursday, September 12, 2002
Photo by Richard Green.
Photo: Puppy Love-Michael Halton (left) ignores Donna Federico (right), his ditzy wife Lola.
When William Inge penned Come Back, Little Sheba, the story of a 1940s, middle-class, small-town couple frustrated by the mediocrity of their lives, he explored topics now regular fodder for American theater-alcoholism, codependence, loveless marriages, frustrated ambitions. His emotionally wrenching 1949 play won him great accolades, as well as Tony awards for leads Shirley Booth and Sidney Blackmer, who played central characters Lola and Doc Delaney.
Booth went on to win an Oscar for the film version, and her portrayal of a chattering, sentimental, somewhat dim-witted but kind-hearted woman whose horizons have slowly but inexorably shrunk around her, remains arguably the greatest moment in the actress''s long career.
Donna Federico, who plays Lola in the production currently on at the Western Stage, has either meticulously studied Booth''s performance, or simply has an uncanny physical resemblance to the actress, down to her very facial tics and arm flutterings. Whatever the case, it works: Federico''s performance is moving and extremely polished.
The play opens with Doc in his kitchen, preparing breakfast for Lola before he goes off to work. He intones the Alcoholics Anonymous mantra ["God give me the strength to accept "], ties a frilly apron around his ample waist, and we begin to sense that all is not ordinary in this seemingly quite ordinary household.
Soon we meet Marie, the college student Doc and Lola have taken in as a boarder. It becomes clear that Doc, if not exactly infatuated with Marie, is at least infatuated with what she represents to him: the purity and freshness of an unsullied young girl.
When Doc leaves for the day, Lola, as always, is left alone to fill long, empty hours with whatever distraction she can find. Desperate for human contact, she wheedles the postman, the milkman and her industrious next-door neighbor into her home, where her constant, meaningless chatter quickly drives them bonkers.
As the play continues, we see Doc''s carefully-constructed façade of normalcy begin to crumble under the double onslaught of his wife''s inanity and the revelation that Marie might not be as pure as he''d believed. He takes to drink, Marie takes to her bed-not alone-and Lola is forced to come to terms with 20 years of shattered hopes and dreams, represented by her constant searching for little Sheba, the "sweet, white puppy" she lost some time earlier.
Federico is really a joy to watch. Her girlish excitement as she feels the milkman''s arm muscle, her maternal snoopiness when she spies on Marie and her boyfriend, Turk, snuggling in the living-room, and especially her dumbstruck gazing at Turk''s remarkable physique as he poses for Marie in his javelin shorts, are priceless. She is a ball of pent-up romantic dreams, standing always with her hands clenched, on the balls of her feet, as if ready to spring forward to what? Something that''s no longer hers to grab.
The night I saw the play there was a lot of line-flubbing. Hopefully that will pass as the run continues.
Other notable performances include Antonio Raimondo as Turk and Julie Preslar-Bell as Marie. Raimondo is all physical bravado in this role-you can almost see the Elvis sneer lurking at the edge of his mouth. And Preslar-Bell captures the wiles of a 1940s-era college girl who uses her looks and charm to get what she wants-in this case, a husband-no matter who she has to run over.
Nancy Bernhard as Mrs. Coffman almost steals the too-few scenes in which she appears, with her singular German accent and no-nonsense approach to Lola''s troubles ("Get busy, lady.")
Sadly, this play is quite dated. Its treatment of issues that are still relevant is compromised by the weight of so many other plays, films and books that have since dealt with the same themes in more contemporary terms. As a result, actors and director have to work harder to make it fresh. In this production, they don''t fully succeed.
Even so, the almost full-house audience last Saturday night seemed to enjoy the show. It''s a story that relates to many people''s lives, presented here in competent fashion with a few stand-out performances.
Come Back, Little Sheba continues through Oct. 11.