Come Back, Little Sheba
by William Inge
The Bethany Mission Gallery
September 3 – 22, 2019
Directed by Tina Brock
An old house in one of those semi-respectable neighborhoods in a Midwestern city.
Running time is approximately 95 minutes, with no intermission.
Tina Brock, Chad Haddad & Erica Hoelscher
Stage Manager / Board Operator
Tina Brock & Mark Williams
Johanna Austin / AustinArt.org
Richard Tuschman / Millennium Images, UK
Special thanks to the following artsts:
Our special thanks to the following artists:
Bill Frisell – Nashville
Bill Frisell, David Holland, Elvin Jones – Moon River
Robin Holcomb – Rockabye
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 – Mais Que Nada
Ben Folds Five – The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner
Come Back, Little Sheba (2019)
“...this powerful reappraisal of Come Back, Little Sheba will live on in your memory long after the lights go up…”
--David Fox, Reclining Standards
Come Back, Little Sheba (2019)
“...the IRC revival of Come Back is a most accomplished piece of theatre…a welcome revival...Tina Brock’s Lola is a stellar performance in its own right, a marvelous creation...Zak perfectly embodies a man painfully uncomfortable in his own skin.”
--Richard Lord, Philadelphia Free Press
Come Back, Little Sheba (2019)
“...Brock makes a charming, touching, patiently suffering Lola... Zak’s portrayal of Doc moves from stiff Alcoholics Anonymous-adherent to hatchet-wielding, out-of-control drunk, and finally to puppy-dog repentance…”
--Lynn Matluck Brooks, thINKing DANCE
Come Back, Little Sheba (2019)
Director’s Notes + Dramaturg’s Notes
Welcome to the 2019 Philadelphia Fringe, the IRC's 14th year participating.
This production marks the IRC's first foray into the work of William Inge. Many years on the list of must tackle authors for the IRC, the timing seemed right given where we are as a nation. I was curious to explore the themes Inge so beautifully renders in this time and place under the IRC lens.
This is the first kitchen sink drama the IRC's ever attempted. It is fitting that the sink, garbage disposal, oven and stove are the finest we will every encounter on any set in the years to come. Thank you to Victor Keen and Jeanne Ruddy for opening their beautiful gallery for year #3 to allow this story to unfold in the most hyper realistic setting a director could envision.
Based on the feedback from IRC's Fringe 2018 production of Tennessee Williams' The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, I was excited to explore how Inge (Williams' contemporary) creates a similar feel through very different use of language. Having been born and raised in the Midwest, there is a longing for the simplicity of place my childhood memories hold. We hope you enjoy the production and that it leaves you with much to contemplate given our complicated world. Thank you for coming along with the IRC for the last 14 years. We are widening the scope of what absurdism means in a world where it's hard to compete with the current 24/7 news cycle. Art matters in this time and we thank you for helping the IRC to continue this journey.
Producing Artistic Director
The Bard of Suburbia: William Inge in the 50’s Cameron Kelsall
In a small Midwestern town, a woman stands in her doorway and pines for her beloved poodle. The pup slipped across the threshold one day, never to be seen again. The dog’s absence is felt not just in the empty food bowl or the scattered toys left behind, but in every fiber of the woman’s being. This is the world of William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba.
It’s heartbreaking, but small: A play that hinges on the grief left in the wake of a lost pet. Of course, the animal represents much more than a furry companion – to Lola Delaney, the woman at the center of this 1950 drama, Little Sheba might as well be every hope and dream that slipped through her fingertips as she sputtered toward an unfulfilled middle age. More importantly, though, Inge treats Lola and everyone in her orbit – a collection of quietly desperate people either betrayed by their circumstances or bound to be someday – with sympathetic understanding, and even identification.
Come Back, Little Sheba thrust Inge into the spotlight, and it made an overnight star of its leading lady, a 52-year-old character actress named Shirley Booth. The story it tells is both of its moment and timeless. Lola and Doc Delaney struggle with existential issues of alcoholism, financial insecurity, and profound loss in ways that still feel familiar.
That familiarity is due in significant measure to a younger generation of American playwrights who were embracing a new kind of naturalism in depicting the lives of contemporary people who lived with these concerns every day. Inge was one of them – following in the steps of his own idol, Tennessee Williams, but breaking ground that was his own. Inge gave a pure, unadorned voice to the foibles of ordinary people that cuts across countless cultural divides.
For a brief moment in the 1950s, Inge stood shoulder to shoulder with Williams and Arthur Miller, unquestionably the most important playwrights of their day. Williams and Miller have largely held onto their elevated positions in the American dramatic canon, despite late careers marred by critical and commercial failures. Yet Inge – whose mature output spans just ten plays, one of which was never produced in his lifetime – has largely been assigned to the annals of theater history. A wave of renewed enthusiasm for his work shows just how much an audience gains when Inge is considered a major player in American drama, rather than merely a footnote.
In Philadelphia, we are lucky to have Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium revisiting Come Back, Little Sheba – particularly on the heels of their brilliant production of Williams’ The Eccentricities of a Nightingale last Fringe, a similar examination of a neglected masterpiece. The choice to stage this play at Bethany Mission Gallery is an inspired one. Nestled among the unique collection of outsider art are many practical appliances and household wares from the era in which the play was written. I imagine you could have found some of these treasures in the Delaney home, fitfully awaiting Little Sheba’s return. Cameron Kelsall is a Philadelphia-based theater critic. He regularly reviews theater for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and his byline has appeared in Philadelphia Gay News, Broad Street Review, American Theatre, Opera News and Exeunt NYC, among other publications.
September 9, 2019
When Fringe Meets the American Canon (Part I: Come Back, Little Sheba)
by David Fox
Fringe Festivals are a natural home to theatrical innovators and outsiders; original, often devised and genre-defying work largely prevails. But now and then, we find a tantalizing cross-pollination when an imaginatively Fringe-y aesthetic is brought to bear on older, more familiar plays and playwrights.
This year, two of Philly’s boldest directors—Tina Brock of Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium and Lane Savadove of EgoPo Classic Theater—do precisely that with, respectively, William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba and Tennessee Williams’ And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens.
On one hand, you could hardly get more canonical than Inge and Williams, two of the most recognized and produced playwrights who came to prominence during the glorious mid-century rise of the American playwright on Broadway.
Yet for all of their fame, there’s a Fringe-y aspect here, too.
Williams enjoyed fabulous successes, but also suffered through abject failures. His poetic, sardonic, and frankly gay voice wasn’t an easy fit for the American temperament that, say, Arthur Miller’s was. After the early 1960s, Williams’ work—increasingly looser, more obliquely symbolist, and yes, gayer, was excoriated by the same critics and audiences who adored his earlier plays.
Similarly, Inge—who had two major Broadway hits in the 1950s, as well as a prominent career as a screenwriter—died by suicide at age 60, having seen his once-bright career slowly but inexorably dim.
In fact, it’s highly appropriate to find these writers and their plays given a home in Philly Fringe. Happily, in both cases considered here, the layering of Fringe aesthetics on established writers is fascinating and sometimes revelatory.
Let’s first take on Inge.
There are those who might consider Come Back, Little Sheba—a study of a troubled marriage set in a kind of universalized postwar suburbia—to be a museum piece. Here, it is literally so at the Bethany Mission Gallery, a superb collection of American artifacts and art. The overlay hits you from the start: above the play’s set—a working kitchen in a modest but comfortable home—a circus banner advertises the world’s fattest man.
For other directors, the two elements together would be impossible to reconcile. But Brock, who also plays the principal role of Lola, the long-suffering wife, is in pursuit of surprising, ironic, impish connections. And in Come Back, Little Sheba—ostensibly one of the most sincere and literal of American dramas—she finds a darkly truthful connection. Deep inside every seemingly normal family group, this production seems to imply, isn’t there something almost freakish?
The net effect here is to throw the world of Sheba, which today could easily seem cloyingly sentimental, into a much harsher light. It doesn’t always work. But the best moments of the production are extraordinary.
What suddenly comes into sharp focus is how Inge documents the failure of American optimism. I cringed at the notion that vitamins would save Doc (sensationally played here by John Zak), the sad-sack middle-aged husband, whose alcoholism tanked his dreams of going to medical school. Or the notion that body-building could transform the town milkman into an object of desire. And don’t even get me started on the suggestion that eggs for breakfast can fix almost anything.
Tina Brock, Barbaraluz Orlanda, and Adam Ritter in Come Back, Little Sheba at Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium. (Photo by Johanna AustinArt)
There’s also the surprise of a harder-edged Lola, capable of innocent or perhaps even deliberate cruelty. This was not at all a part of Shirley Booth’s career-defining creator performance, where every moment was heartbreakingly guileless—but it’s a startling and very effective feature of Brock’s vibrant portrayal.
Most revelatory to me is the sense of voyeurism that emerges as a central theme. Lola and Doc have opened their home to a paying boarder, Marie, a local college girl studying art. Marie and her two suitors—hunky athlete Turk, who poses for her, and stable but dull Bruce—become a kind of reflector onto which Lola and Doc project their memories, and their often distorted dreams. It’s a disquieting mix of compassion, desire, and resentment—and we as an audience are similarly and problematically inculcated in their world.
As I say, not everything works. But this powerful reappraisal of Come Back, Little Shebawill live on in your memory long after the lights go up. Think you know William Inge? Think again.
Come Back, Little Sheba has performances through September 22. For more information and to buy tickets, visit the Theatre Philadelphia website.
Philadelphia Free Press
Come Back, Little Sheba -- A Welcome Revival
by Richard Lord
September 11, 2019
The stated mission of the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium (IRC) is to bring classic Absurdist theatre to Philly. But of late, they seem to have taken on a sub-mission: to revive works by now neglected American playwrights who were once among the most successful talents writing for the stage. Earlier this year, IRC mounted a credible production of Elmer Rice’s Dream Girl, and they’ve now put up a strong rendition of Come Back, Little Sheba, a hit play and film of the early 1950s by William Inge, one of the star dramatists of that period.
Inge, a native of Kansas who wrote mostly about his home region, set this play in “an old house” in a “semi-respectable neighborhood in a Midwestern city.” The focus there is on a married couple who appear to be typical of the early postwar couples.
Doc Delany is a chiropractor trapped in a life of tight-lipped despair. His nickname is the only remnant of his days as a promising medical student. Doc had to abandon his ambition to become a doctor when his girlfriend, Lola, got pregnant. As this was mid-century Middle America, Doc did the required thing: he married Lola and switched to chiropractic, a much shorter study and less crowded career path – though one whose financial rewards are considerably less than a medical practice. After the infant died, Lola found herself unable to conceive again. Doc sought refuge from all these woes in alcohol, though he’s been on the wagon for just over a year as the play opens.
Lola has settled into her role as a housewife, an all-too-typical occupation for many married American women circa 1950. It’s the peak years of the American Century, but the Delaneys are a couple for which the American Dream has turned into a fretful anxiety dream. As we enter their world, we see Doc and Lola as a perfectly mismatched couple. Affection seems to be in short supply in the household, and we can surmise there’s not much sex in their marriage. (They sleep separately.) More, Doc’s income from his practice is just enough to keep Lola and himself in the shallow end of the middle class.
While Lola is someone who still has a spark of the joy of life in her, Doc is a clenched personality whose regime of sobriety is a kind of dry torture. One of the most poignant moments in the play comes when Lola is dancing in abandon to a radio program devoted to “taboo music” and is embarrassed when interrupted; she stops immediately and shuffles back into the role of a “proper Middle-American housewife”.
As Doc’s income from chiropractic is a bit on the low side (especially when interrupted by his bouts of heavy drinking), the couple has to rent out a room to boarders. As the play opens, the current boarder is Marie, a rather attractive young women studying Art at the local college. Marie has a local boyfriend from the college (Turk) and another, more serious boyfriend back in Cincinnati: Bruce. Turk is a track star in the javelin throw, while Bruce is steadily rising in a gray-flannelled corporate career.
Doc is obviously sexually attracted to Marie, but he’s not about to act on it, or even fully admit it to himself. In fact, his normal sexual urges long ago turned in upon themselves and transmuted into a venomous puritanism. (He even bristles when a fatigued Lola sighs, “I’m pooped.” That term is too vulgar for him.)
This all causes a steady buzz of sexual tension in the Delaney household. Doc resents Turk because of his overt physicality and what it portends. He tells Lola his only concern is Marie’s well being, but it’s clear to us he’s being eaten up inside by intense jealousy of Turk. (Which will also become jealousy of Bruce when he arrives later in the play.)
As the play moves along, the Delaneys do not grow or develop; they wallow in their despondent present, knowing their pasts are forever lost while their future just looks something like a continual reprise of the present. Still, as the tensions accumulate, Doc – never far from his personal breaking point – snaps, with predictably unpleasant results.
William Inge was not a brilliant craftsman, and the structure of Come Back, Little Sheba is anything but tight. There are gaps and lapses in the plot and too many turns that are much too convenient. What Inge was quite good at was creating compelling characters that seize our attention and keep us interested all the way through, so much so that we can ignore any structural shortcomings.
The play ends on a sputtering note of hope that we know is as fragile as a soap bubble. There’s no doubt that after the final lights go down, the merest unexpected breeze may pop that bubble.
The IRC revival of Come Back is a most accomplished piece of theatre. The acting ranges from commendable to quite splendid, with the best performances coming, fittingly, from the two actors at the center of this tale.
Shirley Booth originated the role of Lola and proved quite successful in it: Booth won the 1950 Tony for Best Actress, and when she reprised the role in the 1952 film, she snared five Best Actress awards, including the Oscar and the Golden Globe.
Tina Brock’s Lola is a stellar performance in its own right, a marvelous creation. This Lola is such a warm and fragile figure that we just want to rush over and give her a reassuring hug. The corrosive strains of living in an emotionally desiccated middle-class home are expressed vividly by Brock. Lola, once quite pretty, still likes to half-flirt with the milkman, the mailman and probably other male visitors to the home. One moment in this production that utterly captures Lola’s sad existence comes when she tells one of these men, “That’s what we’re here for: to keep each other comp …any.” Just the way Brock delivers that line, with the break in the last word, reveals so much about Lola and her repressed life.
As Tina Brock also took on directing duties for this production, both her performance and the staging of the script are that much more impressive.
I’m fortunate to have not seen the film, so I’m not burdened with any comparisons between this cast and the film’s ensemble. But I cannot see how he-man Burt Lancaster would fit the role of Doc better than this production’s John Zak. From his first moments on stage until his last, Zak perfectly embodies a man painfully uncomfortable in his own skin, filled with resentment at the way his life has turned out. We never lose sight of the fact that this man is a recovering alcoholic whose recovery is so tenuous, blind fury always seething below the polite, pleasant-fellow surface.
Barbaraluz Orlanda is wonderfully charming as Marie, even if she did rush her lines in the early going. Carlos Forbes also had a slight tendency to rush lines early on, but was still quite effective as Turk. Forbes is especially good at using his face to deliver a subtext to every scene he’s involved in.
Bruce is the most sketchily and unconvincingly written of Come Back’s characters, and Adam Ritter seemed unable to make the figure more convincing. He played him at the edge of caricature, which was very much out of synch with the other performances.
Kassy Bradford as Mrs. Coffman, Tomas Dura as the milkman, and Bill Rahill as the mailman as well as Doc’s AA partner all handled their roles admirably.
One of the side benefits of this IRC production is its venue. It’s running at an art gallery, and early arrivals can stroll around the ground floor taking in the various pieces of engaging Outsider Art, before repairing to the second floor where the performance itself is surrounded by even more samples of this art. However, there are also drawbacks to this unique venue: it’s much too polished and uncluttered to suggest the Delaney home as Inge described it, and the claustrophobic feel that a tighter space would give this particular play even more intensity is replaced with a bright, spacious set. Something like American Gothic in soft tones.
Come Back, Little Sheba runs at Bethany Mission Gallery, 1527 Brandywine Street, and Tues.- Sun. through September 22. (Tues-Sat. at 8:00 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2:30)
Upping the ante on dance converage and conversation
Looking Back in Pain and Hope
by Lynn Matluck Brooks
September 8, 2019
In a quest to reach new audiences for performing arts in Philadelphia, Theatre Philadelphia and thINKingDANCE are joining forces and exploring how dance writing and discourse can provide new perspectives on theater.
Since May 2018, tD writers have been lending their varied backgrounds, interests, and approaches to criticism to professional works of theater in Philadelphia.
Although the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium (Tina Brock, Producing Artistic Director), advertises itself as “dedicated solely to the production … of absurdist drama,” its Fringe show, Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), by William Inge, seems far from my conceptions of that genre. The play is realistic, sad in a dated sort of way, funny at times, narratively clear, and beautifully situated in the Bethany Mission Gallery, which features in its collection of “outsider art” an entire wall display of 1950s radios and toasters. They’re gorgeous! The upstairs portion of the gallery is the perfect setting for a drama featuring modernist couches, vinyl-covered kitchen chairs, Formica table-tops, and the like. The staging also moved the actors up and down the stairways of the gallery and to areas to the sides and back of the audience seating, effectively enveloping viewers in the world of the story’s characters.
Hardly absurd is the story of a long-married and deeply unhappy couple. The Delaneys—Lola (played by Brock) and “Doc”— (John Zak) live in “an old house in one of those semi-respectable neighborhoods in a Midwestern city” (according to the program). As the play unfolds, we learn of the embarrassments of the Delaney’s youthful romance, of their having to marry because of her accidental pregnancy, the loss of that child and inability to have another, the failure of Doc’s medical studies because of the forced marriage. He descends into abusive alcoholism in the course of his blah chiropractic career, as Lola attempts to salvage her emotional life through attachment to a puppy, Little Sheba, who has run off and never reappears, despite her anxious watch for it.
Highlighting the Delaney's individual and joint misery is their pretty young boarder, Marie Buckholder (Barbaraluz Orlanda), supposedly pursuing a college degree, but far more dedicated to pursuit of the handsome bucks (Carlos Forbes, Adam Ritter) who romance her. Lola and Doc read Marie’s behavior oppositely, Lola attempting to support and excuse Marie’s romantic longings, as Doc becomes increasingly unhinged by his anguished perceptions of her permissive sexuality. Adding doses of humor, pathos, and narrative support are a neighbor, Mrs. Coffman (Kassy Bradford), and various delivery men (Tomas Dura, Adam Ritter, Bill Rahill), who enliven Lola’s drab life with daily exchanges of empty banter. The gangly Dura, as a milkman bragging to Lola about his bodybuilding successes, elicited welcome laughter from the audience in the course of this deeply sad story.
The cast, adequate to the show’s somewhat dated, if still moving, characterizations and narrative, is fortunate in its lead actors. Brock makes a charming, touching, patiently suffering Lola, whose break-out moments dancing, as she did in her high-school prom years, to the radio are highlights of her dull daily life, and of the show. Zak’s portrayal of Doc moves from stiff Alcoholics Anonymous-adherent to hatchet-wielding, out-of-control drunk, and finally to puppy-dog repentance. Perhaps Sheba has, in fact, come back.
Come Back, Little Sheba, by William Inge, The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, Bethany Mission Gallery, 2019 Fringe Festival, Sept. 5-21.