by Hugh Hunter
“Come Back, Little Sheba” (1949), now running at Stagecrafters, grips your attention. The classic William Inge play is about Lola and Doc, an early middle-aged couple. When young college girl Marie becomes their boarder, she stirs up memories and desires. Once set in motion, this rock will not stop rolling down the hill.
(Ed. Note: The 1952 film of “Come Back, Little Sheba” starred Burt Lancaster, Terry Moore and Shirley Booth, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress, although it was just her first film role. The title of the play refers to the wife’s little dog who disappeared months before the story begins and that she still openly grieves for.)
Nancy Bennett is superb as Lola, (as she was playing Blanche DuBois at Old Academy, a similar role). Her Lola is a nervous bubble of looks and movements as she struggles with her vacant life. She takes a vicarious interest in Marie’s love life. Lola also spins a flirtatious cobweb around men passersby and at times becomes so lonely she accepts the company of a flinty woman neighbor.
Husband Doc, played with a sure touch by Rusty Flounders, is not any happier. Unlike Lola, his interest in Marie is more than vicarious. Yet, you do not look down on him or think him silly. The quickening of his erotic feelings is more hopeless than ridiculous. Doc is a poignant figure, doomed in wanting to relive his life.
Marie, played by Marley Boone, completes the threesome. This perky young woman has two boyfriends. She trysts with Turk (Ryan Cassidy), a self-absorbed jock, while staying engaged to Bruce (Brian Douglas), who satisfies her domestic side. These guys are a couple of zeros. But they give purposeful Marie sex and social place, each in its own tidy box.
Under director Yaga Brady, the production is finely understated. Lower middle-class décor is atmospheric without drawing attention to itself. And actors leave the icebergs underwater. For example, you know handsome, 40-ish Lola must fear losing her looks, just as you know Marie must realize she entices Doc. But the actors never make obvious what the audience can feel for itself.
The use of costume catches your eye, (Joan Blake, Janet Gilmore). Lola and Marie are always changing clothes, as they actively negotiate changes in their social circumstances. But all the men wear the same garb, more inflexible and less socially aware. At one point Doc does become disheveled, but that is not a choice.
“Sheba” offers a dark, almost indefinable vision. For sure, the show is mainly a riveting drama about a troubled man and woman. But the play has an eerie, brooding quality that loosely ally it to other American art forms of the early ‘50s, like film noir and Frank Sinatra saloon songs.
You can almost hear that mournful saxophone at the end as you are left to ponder your choices. Do you want to live a tidy middle-class life like Marie and her boyfriends, orderly but empty of true passion? Or do you want to live in a way that stays true to your deepest wants, with all the sorrows sure to follow.
Stagecrafters Theater is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. “Come Back, Little Sheba” will run through Feb 25. Reservations at 215-247-8881.