[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-SHEBA.html]


by William Inge
Directed by David Cromer
Shattered Globe Theatre
at Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theatre
2257 N. Lincoln Avenue / (773) 871-3000
Through October 21, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 24, 2006

It is 1950 in Midwestern America. Do we know where our children are? Shattered Globe Theatre‘s stunning production of William Inge‘s “Come Back Little Sheba” creates a magnificent little troubled and resolute world at Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theatre. This was William Inge’s first play produced on Broadway, brought to New York by the Theatre Guild for a highly respected five month run in 1950. It is a shame that this current Chicago run ends October 21 – this is a piece of active, mesmerizing, provocative, American theatre not to be missed.

Eleven characters and almost as many actors live in or visit a powerfully evocative small town middle class home in the course of this play, with the lamps and window coverings relatives might have owned (scenic design by Kevin Hagan), and the household products and kitchen implements delightfully incorporated from that same era (props design by Julia Eberhardt). Lighting designer Mike Durst creates post dawn, pre dawn, evening effects through the household windows that set an eerie and fascinating tone. Sound design by Jeffrey Robert Dublinske provides hints of children playing and bird singing — of the small town neighborhood world that our characters watch from inside their limited world. All of these components are melded by director David Cromer into thrilling thinking theatre, with extraordinary and surprising physical moments.

Doc (John Judd) plays a man of studied calm, harnessing demons, attempting to hold his own through disappointments. His portrayal of a long married middle-aged man is part Norman Maine (without the charm) and part Pa Walton, and wholly riveting. Linda Reiter is Doc’s spouse Lola, a middle-aged housewife of haunting resonance, living with her own sorrows and disappointments, getting little jabs of joy from listening to radio soap operas and watching the amorous antics of her young female border. Doc and Lola’s sensual and intelligent border Marie (Maggie Corbett) is finding her way in world in which the social rules have changed for women since Lola’s girlhood. Marie’s gentlemen callers include a local college boy Turk (delightfully and energetically evoked by Jayce Ryan) and her long distance conventional boyfriend Bruce (Ryan Martin). All of the additional supporting players are also strong.

This is a play of perceived social limitations and the effects on characters. The women in particular live with the permission of the men in their lives. Marie, the border, has an active sex life with a local college student yet is serious about Bruce, the boy back home. Lola once may or may not have had sex with someone other than Doc, who may or may not have impregnated her, yet he married her when they were still teenagers and has resented and slightly mistrusted Lola ever since. When she lost the baby (and no others came), Lola appears to have retreated into her kind world of engaging with trades people and having no friends. When she calls home at one point to inquire of her mother “do you suppose Daddy will let me come home?” Lola’s face when listening to her mother’s reply is worth the price of admission. Truly a stunningly succinct and powerful performance.

The play’s title evokes Lola’s tentative hold on hope and her lost sense of mothering. Lola has recently had a puppy named Sheba who has run away; she utters the line “Come back little Sheba .. come back” when she is at her most bereft. Her world has narrowed to her husband, her house, their one border, and her loneliness. One neighbor and the delivery men of whom she asks one too many questions (you sense their reluctance to enter her needy world when they arrive) constitute her universe.

The story of this play is of loneliness and commitment. There is obligation and yearning and glimpses into secret passions throughout the text of this play and in the exquisite staging of these performances. The resolution of the play comes through a wary and blank forgiveness. Doc demonstrates limited self-awareness and yet a willingness to try to button up his behavior. We know Lola’s limited options and yet … there is always hope. When Lola reaches out and makes a real connection (e.g. with the body building milkman played by Michael Falevits or with her neighbor Mrs. Coffman played by Eileen Niccolai) she successfully broadens her world. We find ourselves cheering Lola on in her adventure. And we cheer this production.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 24, 2006)

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