Huntington's "Come Back Little Sheba": Mutt As Metaphor

Adrianne Krstansky & Derek Hasenstab in "Come Back, Little Sheba"

At the beginning of the play “Come Back, Little Sheba” Lola Delaney (Adrianne Krstansky) has been dreaming of searching for Sheba, her long-lost dog, for whom she still calls out. It will become a metaphor for other losses that cannot be reclaimed. Directing a production of the famous William Inge work was a long-time dream of David Cromer which has finally come true at Huntington Theatre Company. Cromer helmed the terrific production of “Our Town” for the company a couple of seasons ago. The current production, concerning a middle-aged couple in a rundown Midwestern city over the course of a single week, was one that spoke to its audiences back in 1950; it ran on Broadway for two hundred performances. Inge was to continue with other plays about commonplace Midwestern folks (“Picnic”, “Bus Stop”), but it was this character study of an intellectually ill-suited, co-dependent twosome that struck such a chord with theatergoers as they watched the husband in recovery and the wife, first in denial, survive a shattering crisis. It calls for some rather intense naturalism, without frills, just great storytelling, a credible middle-class drama. What it also calls for is heart.

Fortunately, it has plenty of that, in Cromer's hands and as embodied by Krstansky's truly heartbreaking Lola. Her husband of twenty unhappy years is Doc (Derek Hasenstab), a chiropractor who gave up a promising potential career in medicine when she became pregnant before they married, subsequently losing the baby in childbirth. Their young boarder Marie (Marie Polizzano), the daughter they never had, is encouraged by Lola in Marie's amorous pursuit of both the hunky track and field star Turk (Max Carpenter) and her wealthy boyfriend Bruce (Nael Nacer) who resides in her hometown of Cincinnati. Meanwhile Lola herself, a former beauty queen, flirts with the Postman (Adam Zahler) and the Milkman (Michael Knowlton) under the watchful eye of her neighbor Mrs. Coffman (Maureen Keiller). Doc, a recovering alcoholic, stays sober by forgetting the past, helped by two of his fellow A.A. members, Ed (Christopher Tarjan) and Elmo (Jeremy Browne). Yet it's a tenuous state, as events will come to prove. The first act, essentially the setup for the drama to come, is slow and methodical, a little too commonplace and even dull. As with other Inge works, this play is long on characterization but short on convincing plot. The first act serves to set up the mundane everyday bare bones of their existence in order for the second act to give vent to the torrid all-too-human drives previously lying dormant. It succeeds most at being a vehicle for a consummate actress and a strong supporting cast.

Krstansky is certainly up to the task. With her disheveled look and fluttering movement, her childlike speech and barely controlled terror, hers is a performance that becomes an acting class in itself, with never a false note. It's an unforgettably moving demonstration of this wonderful actor's craft. Hasenstab is a worthy match for her in a variation from the usual brutish take of productions past, more intensely wound, until his breaking point. Polizzano is terrific as the liberated Marie, with fine support from Carpenter and Nacer as her completely opposite swains. The remainder of the cast, in minor but colorful turns, show just how clever Inge was at character portrayals. The creative team includes perfectly suited Costume Design by Sarah Laux, natural Lighting Design by Mike Durst and period Sound Design by Jonathan Mastro. Special mention should be made of the marvelous and meticulous Scenic Design by Stephen Dobay, whose work in Cromer's “Our Town” production was so memorable, here in a confining space painstakingly recreated from the past (right down to a working gas stove), which serves as the ideal cage for the captive couple at the core of the story.

By the end of the play, each spouse has realized something fundamental about the past, present and (likely) future life together. The lonely chiropractor husband and his equally lonely wife live their small lives. The play ends up portraying their nostalgia and regret for their vanished youth, indicated by the obvious metaphor of their long-missing pet, perhaps too obvious, as is much of this unfortunately dated yet poignant work. As Thoreau wrote, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”. Jim Manago's biography of Shirley Booth (who originated the role of Lola on stage and in film), entitled “Love Is the Reason (for It All)”, is also the title of one of the songs from the musical version of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” in which she also starred a year after “Sheba”. This is particularly applicable here. Love is, in the end, the reason for it all.

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