Country Playhouse's Come Back, Little Sheba Doesn't Strike Magic

The setup:

Playwright William Inge was not a party guy, and his first major success on Broadway (he had four in a row in the 1950s) is a blistering look at a failed marriage. The bright spots of life belong to others, but even the youngsters are tinged with failure waiting just out of reach. Nobody's going to be happy for long in Inge's depressingly drab little world.

In this production from Country Playhouse, we're in the Midwest in a shabby house, run by a slovenly Lola (Tess Wells) who's married to chiropractor Doc (Mack Hays). He's been sober for a year, and she'll tell it to anybody who comes to the door. She'll tell anything to anybody who comes to the door, for she only wants a little company.

Doc is "nice," as young college boarder Marie (Emily Cunningham) confides, but for Lola the spark he once had has long gone out. Both are haunted by the past, a cold, unforgiving past. Their marriage is a sham, a shotgun affair from high school coupled with a botched abortion that left Lola forever childless and Doc resentful for dropping out of med school to marry her. Love is for others.

Marie's free spirit and sexy way with her athlete boyfriend Turk (Adan Inteuz) rekindles some of Lola's lost warmth, but curdles memories for Doc. It drives him back to the bottle. A happy ending is not to be, even though the play ends with Lola having fixed up the house in hopes that the future might turn out right. Throughout, she has pined for her beloved dog, Sheba, who ran away. In the end, she gives up all hope of a return, and she and Doc settle back into their routine of a dull, loveless marriage.

The execution:

Never has a bottle of whiskey perked up a play as much as this. Until Doc careens into the kitchen, screaming, taunting, and threatening Lola, the dull ache of everyday life -- of which Inge was a master at delineating -- has been uncommonly slow-paced under director Jack Dunlop. We've been under water right from the beginning, as Doc prepares breakfast before Lola wakes up. He puts on an apron (a powerful Inge touch), gets the pans, pours the orange juice, and goes about his business with deliberate slowness as if the world hinges upon his making breakfast. It seems a waste of precious stage time: all preparation and no pay-off.

The play is full of quotidian touches like the arrival of the mailman (John Mitsakis) and milkman (Scott McWhirter), the next door neighbor's nosiness (Janina Gebel), and other bits of business. But not much in this version from Country Playhouse strikes magic. Wells doesn't make Lola ache for her past; she seems merely befuddled. And the house that's supposed to be such a mess just reads as untidy.

Except for Hays's mighty fine drunk scene, there's no pace to this production. Everything gets the same emphasis -- those eggs in the skillet, the telephone call from Western Union, the searching for little Sheba. Finally, with Hays's outburst, the play breathes.

Country Playhouse's extra-wide, Cinemascope stage is cleverly used by set designer Katt Gilcrease to show off the three areas of the home -- kitchen, living room and front porch -- but the large expanse needs detailing to fill it out and make it come alive. While we're at it, the lighting needs a tweak or two. If we're supposed to be looking out the back door at morning, there'd better be light out there. A blank space takes us right out of the play, constantly reminding us that we're on a stage. A rosy glow does wonders, not only for complexion.

The verdict:

Once a theater wiz kid and winner of a Pulitzer (Picnic) and an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (Splendor in the Grass -- probably his best work), Inge struggled with Broadway success once the '50s were over. Once lauded with O'Neill and Miller, he got booted out when Albee's rising star took off. His plays consistently failed, he was horribly closeted and never entirely happy with his gay existence -- it all comes out in his work, whether he wanted it too or not -- and he finally had enough. He committed suicide in 1973.

With its theme of sexual repression squarely in your face, Sheba is more upfront and daring than ever. This production just doesn't know what to do with it.

Come Back, Little Sheba runs through May 7 at Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury. For information, call 713-467-4497.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover