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Come Back, Little Melodrama

An Up-and-Down Sheba at Spotlighters

Maria Lakkala and Gerald L. Riley in Come Back, Little Sheba

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 2/23/2000

Come Back, Little Sheba

William Inge

We've been waiting for Godot since the 1950s, but we've been waiting for little Sheba even longer. If Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot treated human relationships as a vaudeville routine performed in an existential wasteland, William Inge's 1950 drama Come Back, Little Sheba, now being revived by the Spotlighters, is more firmly grounded in mundane reality.

The play's heroine, Lola, is a frumpy, overweight, middle-aged housewife whose observations are as commonplace as her house's furnishings. Youth and its idealism are long behind her, and her regrets are many. Her husband, nicknamed Doc, could have been a doctor but settled for chiropracty. His alcoholism nearly wrecked their marriage before he got it under control. They had a baby, but it died. And their beloved dog, Sheba, wandered off one day and has yet to return.

We know the dog will never come back, but Lola still goes out to the porch and calls its name. Doc, being a more pragmatic type, tells Lola to stop living in the past and accept the present. But the past haunts their marriage, and its unhappier aspects have a way of returning. Doc, for instance, keeps a bottle of whiskey in a cabinet above the kitchen sink as proof that he won't succumb to boozy temptation. When Lola notices the bottle missing one day, we know that their long-peaceful marital relations are about to give way to a literal kitchen-sink drama.

Inge had an ear for naturalistic dialogue, but the essence of his drama is the so-called poetic realism that also characterized two other American playwrights emerging around the same time, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Perhaps one reason why Inge's reputation has not weathered as well as theirs is that his symbolism tends to have a groan-inducing obviousness, and the poetic lines are less beautifully crafted than in Williams' work. Ultimately, Come Back, Little Sheba seems like a contrived melodrama that falls short of dramatic greatness.

And yet, this can be a deeply affecting play. (For proof, watch the 1952 film version starring Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster.) That it's rarely revived is surprising, considering its durable ability to move an audience.

If the Spotlighters' production promises some extra emotional clout it's because the theater is dedicating the show to its longtime leader, Audrey Herman, who died last December. Herman played Lola on this stage several decades back, so it's a fitting tribute.

For all that, this revival lacks emotional heft. Director John Sadowsky helms a mostly capable cast, but everybody involved needs to milk the pathos a bit more. When an otherwise solid Maria Lakkala, as Lola, goes outside to call for her dog, she's too matter-of-fact about it. Lakkala needs to suggest all the unstated things Lola is also calling for.

Downright disappointing, at least in the first act, is Gerald L. Riley as Doc. Admittedly, the Doc we first encounter is a fastidiously proper fellow given to blandly dispensing advice. The character is buttoned-down, but he needn't be as boring as Riley makes him. When Doc goes on a drinking binge in the second act, there's more life in Riley too. The conversational sparring between Lakkala and Riley packs real power in these scenes, and you can finally get out your handkerchiefs.

The secondary characters—a lovely young female boarder, a couple of the boarder's male friends, the next-door neighbor, a milkman, a messenger, and others—are broadly written and don't offer the actors much room for nuance. This hurts the play, but not as much as you might fear. Frankly, once Doc starts shouting and Lola starts crying, you lock into the melodrama and enjoy their every miserable moment.

Following its run at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, Come Back, Little Sheba will be staged with the same cast March 24-26 at the Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City.

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