Welcome back, William Inge. The mid-century Midwestern playwright has made a quiet but breathtaking return to the playbill at the Shaw Festival this summer, once again under the sensitive direction of Jackie Maxwell.
Come Back, Little Sheba, a 1950 play that was Inge’s Broadway breakthrough, covers a tumultuous 24 hours in the life of a couple without kids – a recovering-alcoholic chiropractor called Doc and his stay-at-home wife, Lola.
In a performance brimming with comic pathos, Corrine Koslo brings the central character of Lola to vivid life.
Much of the first half of the play is atmospheric, with Lola wandering around her house waiting for something to happen. Sexually frustrated, bored and lonely, the former beauty queen flirts with the milkman, the mailman, anything vaguely resembling a man that comes within sight.
Lola particularly enjoys peering around corners at her college-student boarder Marie (all perkiness masking craftiness, as played by up-and-comer Julia Course) and her two boyfriends. Koslo fills each glance – and occasional open-mouthed stare – with a mix of eagerness and panic that makes you laugh and then wince.
While Lola is excited by the seemingly unself-conscious sex life of Marie, Doc has put the young woman on a pedestal and tries to pretend she is a complete innocent – and blames his wife for encouraging any improprieties.
Ric Reid is heartbreaking as this kind but distant man, who underneath is obsessed with ideals of purity, perhaps a necessary bulwark against regrets that lead to the bottle.
No doubt, Doc and Lola are on a clear collision course. While he wants to sit and listen to classical music on the radio, she needs big-band music to invigorate her. He needs to forget the past; she only comes to life remembering it. He needs to block out his yearnings, while she desperately wants them quenched.
Is Inge as great a writer as the contemporaries who overshadow him now, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams? There is something very simple, almost obvious, about the action of Come Back, Little Sheba – and his characters can seem like robots programmed by pop psychologists on the page.
His symbols, meanwhile, are almost laughably heavy-handed – from little Sheba, the runaway dog Lola keeps calling out for, to the javelin Marie’s athletic beau Turk poses with in front of the quivering landlady. (“You hold it like this, erect,” he says.)
And yet, Maxwell, who has previously directed Inge’s Picnic and Bus Stop, knows how to coax the playwright’s somewhat dated vision to contemporary life. His naturalism has a dreamlike dimension that she taps into here with the help of a jazzy score by Zachary Florence and Christina Poddubiuk’s expressionistic set.
Maxwell isn’t afraid to read between the lines either; as Lola listens to a suggestive radio program, for instance, she lets her hands wander southwards, though the stage directions say only that Lola grows “more and more comfortable.”
The cringeworthy set piece could come straight out of a Jonathan Franzen novel, another non-judgmental Midwestern writer. Few playwrights have captured the mix of joy and terror that comes from having a sex drive like Inge.
Come Back, Little Sheba runs at the Shaw’s Royal George Theatre until Oct. 19.