The beauty of David Cromer’s production of Come Back, Little Sheba that by focusing on the play’s intense psychological undercurrents he minimizes its cultural mustiness.
Come Back, Little Sheba by William Inge. Directed by David Cromer. Presented by the Huntington Theatre in the Roberts Studio, Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA through May 2.
By Terry Byrne
In William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba, the moments of silence in ordinary lives lay bare all the pain hidden beneath heaps and heaps of words. Perhaps that’s why Lola, the frustrated housewife at the center of this celebrated ‘kitchen sink’ drama, fills her days distracting the mailman, the milkman, and anyone else willing to listen to her empty chatter.
Actress Adrianne Krstansky understands the power of silence, and her luminous performance as Lola is truly something to behold. In Krstansky’s hands, Lola’s obsession with her lost dog Little Sheba, her endless string of vapid endearments for her chiropractor husband Doc (Derek Hasenstab), and her overenthusiastic encouragement of her college student boarder Marie (Marie Polizzano) make us cringe and then make us weep.
Lola has gained weight and become listless about housework and her appearance since her days as a pretty young thing. She lives vicariously through Marie’s love life, spying on her “spooning” with her hunky boyfriend Turk (Max Carpenter) and advising Marie about her future plans regarding her fiancé Bruce (Nael Nacer). Krstansky’s interpretation of Lola’s voyeurism is deliciously subtle, her appreciation of young love apparently sincere. But when she stares at the nearly naked Turk (posing for Marie’s sketching), her hooded eyes communicate nothing, while the sheer weight of her presence tells us everything.
All of the dramatic action takes place inside the claustrophobic confines of Doc and Lola’s worn-out house. Stephen Dobay’s beautifully realized set allows us access to the kitchen and living room and a tantalizing peek behind the curtain to the former dining room where Marie sleeps. As Krstansky moves restlessly between the rooms — perching on a chair, flopping on the couch, standing behind the swinging kitchen door — she suggests the movements of a logy bird in a cage, checking the boundaries, but never trying to escape.
Her husband Doc, on the other hand, treats the house like a painful obligation; he must see to it that the household runs smoothly every day. Hasenstab shows us a tightly wound man, one who turned to drink to drown his resentment at his life’s limitations. Dreams of medical school ended when Lola got pregnant and they married but lost the baby. Now sober for nearly a year, Doc sees Marie as a virtuous young woman, the kind he wishes he married.
When Doc discovers Marie is not as pure as he thought, it sends him over the edge. In a drunken rage, he turns on Lola with fury and contempt, but it’s not his words that wound us, but Krstansky’s evocation of Lola’s response: passive and defeated. In the play’s final scene, director David Cromer places Doc at one corner of the house and Lola at the other. The distance between the two seems vast and, as they slowly come together, we are left with mixed feelings (no doubt Inge’s intent) about the rapprochement — hope tinged with resignation.
Director Cromer isn’t afraid of either the measured pace of Inge’s script, or the plot’s obvious limitations. First staged in 1950, Come Back, Little Sheba was the first of a quartet of Broadway and Hollywood successes for Inge, followed by Picnic, Bus Stop, and Dark at the Top of the Stairs). At the height of his popularity he was considered by some critics to be the equal of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. But with the arrival of the liberated ’60s the world of Inge’s plays began to feel too small, mired in the sexual norms of a repressed era.
The beauty of Cromer’s production is that by focusing on the play’s intense psychological undercurrents he minimizes its cultural mustiness. Every performance here is understated, from Krstansky’s transparent reactions to Maureen Keillor’s modulated appearance as the concerned neighbor. So while the play’s emotional conflicts may be enmeshed in the period setting, but it doesn’t reduce their devastating impact.
Terry Byrne has been writing about the arts for nearly two decades. She has an MFA in Playwriting from Boston University and is a Resident Scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center.