Sunday, July 17, 2016

Little Sheba - Inge’s 50s Shocker Makes a Comeback

Susan McGregor-Laine and Mark Yochum in "Come Back Little Sheba" Credit: Dale Hess

     They say that many wine connoisseurs are able to identify the grape from which a particular wine is made simply by its color, bouquet, aroma and taste. On the same note, many veteran theater-goers might also have a similar ability, that of being able to identify a particular playwright a few minutes into act one by their tone, subject matter, language choices and style.

To my mind, one of those most easily identifiable is William Inge, whose works often start out pleasantly and inviting, then eventually take a darker tone like the bite of a tannic and dry Cabernet, then finish, after a bit of Sturm und Drang, on a pleasingly hopeful tone.

One of Inge’s plays and his first Broadway hit, "Come Back Little Sheba," is getting another look at the Genesius Theater on the campus of Duquesne University in Downtown Pittsburgh. Up through July 24, it seems to be doing well in the terroir of this comfortable, relatively new, 130-seat, black box-style theater.

Like many other Inge plays, Sheba’s setting is a small town in the Midwest circa the 1950s. The play opens with the comfy coziness of a Norman Rockwell painting in the kitchen of a husband and wife who’ve been married for 20 years. Doc Delany (Mark Yochum) is a rather low-key, affable chiropractor who dresses in typical 50s professional male attire - in a suit and hat that seems so passé nowadays. His wife Lola (Susan McGregor-Laine), is more energetic and spirited, a one-time beauty who’s gotten plump and a tad slovenly through the years.

The Delaneys married young, the result of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy at a time when such things brought with them great embarrassment and social devastation. Doc, however, stepped up to his responsibilities and married the blighted 18 year old, thereby saving her reputation. Unfortunately, the couple lost the baby and, along with it, any chance of having another.

As a sort of familial surrogate, they’ve let out a room in their house to a college student and artist, Marie (Lauren Brendel), who initially comes across as innocent, pure and almost virginal but whose libido is deceptively freer than it appears. Early on, even Doc, despite his rather even-keeled temperament, seems drawn to the emancipated young woman

As Lola, McGregor-Laine adds bits of merriment to the mostly dark downward spiral that Inge takes us on. Especially humorous is the way she reacts with sexual interest to Marie’s model, Turk (George Ramey), a muscled javelin thrower with no compunction about stripping down to his boxers to post for a Marie sketch. Lola even shows a cheeky friendliness to the postman and milk man who stop by on their daily rounds. Delicious moments these.

Even with such shenanigans up her sleeve, Lola seems a bit bored by daily life and tries to overcompensate by being overly neighborly. Doc, on the other hand, seems more inwardly preoccupied, which fits right into the audience’s discovery that he’s in alcohol recovery and probably spending most of his energy subduing his demons and addiction.

The "Father Knows Best" feel to the opening few minutes of the play soon morphs into something darker and more serious. Marie’s sexual liberation seems to push Doc over the edge, and he soon reaches for the bottle of Old Grandad placed all too conveniently in the kitchen cupboard and surreptitiously heads out the door.

My first inclination was to see Doc’s off-the-wagon reacquaintance with the bottle as a jealous reaction to Marie’s romantic encounters or his marred image of her as a pristinely chaste young woman. But a friend pointed out that it could also have been a result of him beginning to suspect that he might not have actually been the father of Lola’s child.

Fueled by alcohol, Doc’s pent up anger takes a violent turn that could have turned out a lot worse than it actually does. In fact, the episode does have some redeeming value in that it solidifies the couple’s relationship and gives them the resolution to go on with their lives.

Several times in the play, Lola goes to the door and calls for Sheba, a dog that went missing and one for which she still longs. Like her now vanished youth, looks and attractiveness, she hopes that the dog will be return. But by the end of the play, she resigns herself to the fact that the dog and her previous life are both a thing of the past.

Both McGregor-Laine and Yochum anchor the play as seasoned actors with impressive acting credentials and awards. Many of the rest of the cast are much younger and just starting their theater careers and understandably lack the polish and finesse of the veterans. Even so, they bolster the drama with credible characters and smartly delivered lines.

Especially noteworthy is George Ramey as the bold and brash Turk, Eric Mathews in the double role of the Postman/Elmo Huston and set designer, John E. Lane, Jr., who assembled enough 50s era furniture (stove, refrigerator, end tables, doilies, radio, dial phone, even some period Look magazines) to give the proceedings an authentic feel.

Credit director Justin Sines with imbuing the cast with fine sense of timing that makes the two hour long play roll by with interest, polish and emotional intensity.

"Come Back Little Sheba is a production of The Summer Company and plays through July 24 at the Genesius Theater on the campus of Duquesne University in Downtown Pittsburgh. For tickets visit www.thesummercompany.com.

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