SHAW FESTIVAL REVIEW: Come Back, Little Sheba
Canadian author, Hermine Steinberg, reviews Come Back, Little Sheba- a play about alcoholism, failed marriages, teenage pregnancy, and the desperation of those living shattered lives
Middle aged couple, Doc and Lola Delaney live in a small mid-western town. Their life together may have started with passion and love but now appears to be devoid of any real communication or connection. Doc is a chiropractor who gave up medical school to support the once beautiful Lola when they discovered she had become pregnant at 17. She lost the baby and was not able to have any more children. But Doc insists she not work and Lola now lies around the house, older and overweight, and desperately lonely. Doc has become an alcoholic and is celebrating his one year AA ‘birthday’. They have carefully constructed a life where Lola tries to be supportive but is overcome with longing for her youth and remains somewhat infantile in her approach to the world. She flirts with the postman and the mailman and lives vicariously through their attractive boarder, Marie, a university student who is dating a handsome jock- Turk – while still having a boyfriend back home who she hopes to marry. Marie brings out the frustration and yearning of paths not taken in both Lola and Doc. Emotions and rage erupt in Doc that lead him back to the bottle – which seems to be the established up and down cycle of their marriage.
William Inge’s drama written in 1949 portrays the suffering of ordinary people. It was a ground breaking achievement in the genre of domestic drama because it realistically dealt with taboo topics such as alcoholism, failed marriages, teenage pregnancy, and the desperation of those living shattered lives. Lola’s teenage pregnancy and Doc’s “sickness” were scandals families went to great lengths to try to hide from public view and seen as a source of shame. Membership in Alcoholics Anonymous was not a topic for casual conversation. Today the storyline may seem mundane because we see these topics being dealt with openly and graphically on TV and in movies, but in its simplicity, Inge was able to capture the intense anxiety and desperation felt by Doc and Lola in the very small world they shared. In fact, his play may be considered one of the early prototypes for realistic contemporary social theater. It also provides the audience an intimate glimpse into the true nature of codependency – although at the time it would not have been identified as such.
William Inge was born in 1913, the fifth and last child of Maude and Luther Inge. He was raised in Independence, Kansas, by his mother. His father was a salesman and was rarely at home. Luther had extra marital affairs and left Maude largely to fend for herself. She often rented out extra rooms in their house to supplement their income. Not only did his mother become a strong influence in Inge’s life so did many of the other people in his household and community.
Inge joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1948, and was already in therapy to try to deal with his alcoholism and depression. Come Back Little Sheba, as many of his plays, focused on the complexity of family relationships and deal with characters who struggle with failed expectations, depression, and addiction- things with which he was intimately familiar.
Following his early success and recognition for such classics as Come Back Little Sheba, Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Picnic, and Bus Stop, Inge’s subsequent plays, A Loss of Roses (1959), Natural Affection (1963) and Where’s Daddy? (1966) were commercial failures. Inge’s first attempt at screenwriting, Splendor in the Grass (1961), earned him the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay but he could never repeat his early success. He died in 1973 from carbon monoxide poisoning which was ruled a suicide. There is no doubt that the reason his characters’ seem so real and raw is that they were all expressions of his own pain, insecurity, and life experience. Although his stories are neither complex nor action-packed, he poignantly bears his soul for all to witness – and it is impossible to take your eyes off the stage.
Inge establishes two characters in Lola and Doc that are universal in their suffering. His words are simple but it takes two actors who can transcend the words on the page, and are able to tap into and successfully express the inner world of these people to make the play what Inge intended. Corrine Koslo is superb as Lola, filled with nervous energy, anxiety, and longing. Every gesture and every word conveys her fear of Doc`s `sickness ‘ returning and any real chance for happiness having been lost forever – just as her little dog, Sheba. Ric Reid is masterful in portraying the anguish, grief, and ultimately the rage Doc is experiencing. Together they create a starkly realistic picture of a codependent couple, psychologically dependant on each other because they believe they have no one else, and that the consequences of leaving would be far too great a risk. They have created a recipe for both of them to be stuck in a cycle of increasing dysfunction requiring Lola to increasingly suppress her desires and Doc to swallow his pride and ambition. To the credit of Koslo and Reid, the sorrow and emptiness of Lola and Doc’s lives are absolutely gripping.
Sharry Flett as Mrs. Coffman also delivers a solid performance. Julia Course, however, comes across as a bit of a caricature of the bubbly and promiscuous college student waiting for her boyfriend to propose.
Christina Poddubiuk’s set design is too complex and actually at times takes away from the flow of the play. Audience members sitting on the side could not see all the action taking place in the kitchen.
Despite a few distractions in the design and direction of the play, Come Back, Little Sheba will be remembered as one of the shining stars of the season. It is as real and relevant today as it was in the 1950s. Currently it is estimated that there are nearly 14 million Americans who abuse alcohol or are alcoholic. There are few of us who are not touched directly or indirectly by some form of substance abuse as a means to cope with emotional or psychological problems. As clearly as many of Inge’s friends and family could recognize themselves in his plays, will most of us be able to relate to and be touched by this modern day tragedy.
Hermine Steinberg is a young adult/children’s author and high school teacher living in Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Her novel, The Co-Walkers: Awakening, is available through Amazon, Chapters Indigo, and Barnes & Noble. For more information on Hermine and The Co-Walkers, visit www.cowalkers.com