Rare revival of 1950s drama a timely saga

Realism: Not a powerhouse, but `Come Back, Little Sheba' is full of courageous performances in a tale of alcoholism and sexual repression.

Review

Howard Live

March 23, 2000|By Nelson Pressley | Nelson Pressley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

William Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba" is seldom revived anymore because of its awkward sentimentality. Inge ended not just one but two acts with the maudlin sight of a lonely middle-aged woman calling plaintively for a long-lost dog: "Come back, little Sheba!"

That phrase has been parodied a great deal in the 50 years since Inge wrote the play. It's unfortunate that this drama has been reduced to a punch line, for there is a good deal of power to Inge's tale of alcoholism and sexual repression.

The co-production of Spotlighters Theatre and Director's Choice Theater Company -- playing this weekend at Howard County Center for the Arts -- isn't a top-to-bottom powerhouse. But it's smartly acted, particularly by Maria Lakkala. She portrays Lola, the lonely housewife, and her quiet desperation pulls you through this sad saga quite nicely.

The play features the kind of kitchen-sink realism that was the standard in the mid-20th century, and director John Sadowsky's production moves smoothly around the interior of the house shared by Lola and her husband, Doc. They have a boarder, an attractive young woman named Marie, and you can tell by the way she tenderly fixes Doc's tie over breakfast that she's trouble.

It's not that Marie teases Doc so much as she triggers all the tortured feelings about sex in Doc's mixed-up brain. He is a tight-lipped Puritan, opposed to open displays of almost any kind, and deeply suspicious that there may be covert goings-on between Marie and a young man named Turk. In Doc's world, this is a no-no on two fronts: Marie isn't married, and she's engaged to another man.

Lola, on the other hand, simply beams at the young lovers; it does her sad heart good to see such happiness in the world. If you're guessing that these fundamental differences between Doc and Lola lead to problems in the marriage, you're right.

The story of Lola and Doc -- a recovering alcoholic -- is a dark one, a tale of lust, guilt and long years of regret. Lola loved Doc madly when they first met, but his feelings about her way back then aren't so rosy. The long-buried reasons for his bitterness ultimately come spilling out when his anger at Marie's relatively free sexuality drives him back to the bottle.

Lakkala gives a warm, subtle performance as Lola. Lola is a pitiable figure -- a romantic spirit married to a loveless moralizer -- but Lakkala doesn't wallow in the potential sentimentality of the part. Instead, she's nervously appeasing as her Lola tries to stay on Doc's good side, savors even brief visits from neighbors and deliverymen, and understandably mothers Marie and Turk.

Michelle Abramowitz and Rich Espey are appealing as the young lovers, and most of the supporting acting is adequate, if not quite on Lakkala's colorful level. Gerald L. Riley's Doc, however, gives a tight-lipped performance that becomes flamboyant in the end, as Doc goes on a bender and comes after Lola with murder on his mind. Sadowsky and Riley have decided that there's no soft-pedaling Doc's breakdown, so Riley floors it -- tears, hollering, the works.

It's a courageous performance, almost grotesque in its bald display of agony. But it's what Inge wanted -- a full-throttle display of the destructive tug of war between guilt and desire.

Spotlighters Theatre and Director's Choice Theater Company present "Come Back, Little Sheba" by William Inge at Howard County Center for the Arts, 8510 Ridge Road, Ellicott City, at 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $10 general admission (student and senior discounts available). Information: 410-419-5247.

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