Friday, April 17, 2015

The Huntington Theatre Company Presents "Come Back, Little Sheba" by William Inge - A Remarkable Achievement - Now Extended Through May 2

It is worth noting when a theatre company is able to take a classic of the stage, dust it off and present it as fresh and relevant to a new generation of audience members.  Such is the miracle being repeated with each performance of "Come Back, Little Sheba" at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA by the Huntington Theatre Company under the inspired Direction of David Cromer.  This play is one of the highlights of the Boston theater season.  Audience reaction has been so strong that the run of the show has been extended through May 2, so get your tickets while there are still some to be procured.

The success of this production begins with the timeless writing of William Inge.  The characters in this play are partly inspired by an aunt and uncle whose lives he observed when he was young. Issues of a childless and stagnant marriage were ones he observed in his relatives.  His own struggle with alcohol informed that part of this powerful play's script. Inge has created a menagerie of colorful characters, each of whom I found myself caring about.  The cast of this production is stellar, with a few performances that will be remembered for a long while to come.  The creative team have transformed the theater into a reproduction of a 1940's kitchen and living room that is so authentic that it took my breath away.  Stephen Dobay as Scenic Designer is at the top of his game here.  Before the action began, I turned to the person sitting next to me - a woman of a certain age - and we reminisced together about all of the elements of the set that reminded us of the homes where we had grown up or where we had visited our grandparents.  Further enhancing the feel of the period are Costumes by Sarah Laux, Lighting by Mike Durst, and Sound by Jonathan Mastro.

The "action" of the play begins brilliantly with almost no action at all.  Doc enters the kitchen alone early in the morning, and slowly and methodically washes dishes, lights the gas stove, prepares the coffee in a period percolator, and goes through a silent litany of reciting the Serenity Prayer to start off another day of sobriety.  The silence hangs in the air as a pregnant pause.  The audience leans forward to try to grasp what is happening - or is about the happen.  It is said that animals can sense a coming earthquake even before subterranean tremors can be recorded by seismographs.  The audience in the opening scene of "Come Back, Little Sheba" is the same, wondering what kind of tectonic plates may be silently grinding away underneath Doc's placid exterior.  The silence is shattered when a human dynamo, the perky Marie, comes bursting through the kitchen door.  She is a boarder whom Doc finds intriguing and alluring, and whose youth and exuberance Doc's wife, Lola, both admires and resents.  And we are off to the races.

Each actor in this cast has earned special mention.

Derek Hasenstab is a powerful presence as Doc, carving out a dizzying dramatic arc.  In Act I, he holds himself uncomfortably together in a corset of daily routine that obscures evidence of a dry drunk.  That quotidian routine of morning solitude, platonic pecks on the cheek with Lola, trips to his chiropractic office and perusal of the evening newspaper in his chair serve as an exoskeleton that props him up and keeps him from either collapsing into a puddle of self-pity and dissolution or erupting into a volcano of drunken rage. In Act II, he has thrown off the girdle of sobriety and restraint and has fallen off the wagon.  The scene in which he attacks Lola after his return from an all-night bender is one of the most dramatic played out on the American stage, and Mr. Hasenstab handles it with stunning brilliance and force.

Marie Polizzano is Marie, the only apparent spark of life and passion in an otherwise dour household.  She enjoys the fatherly attentions of Doc, not fully realizing the hold she has on him - her youth and beauty a stark contrast to Lola's decay and lethargy.  She is engaged to be married to Bruce, but is carrying on with Turk, who serves as a "life model" for her art studies.  Her libido causes problems for Doc and for Lola.  Ms. Polizzano is perfect in this role, alternating between calculating and innocent, seductive and sweet.

Adrianne Krstansky as Lola is the emotional heart - or the emotional sink hole - of this play.  Her first entrance tells us much of what we need to know about this woman.  She has let herself go and is hanging on by a thread to sanity and the pretense of a marriage.  She is so hungry for meaningful human interaction that she invites in the milkman, the postman, the harried neighbor, Mrs. Coffman - anything to find a human connection..  Her hair is in disarray, her house is a mess, she has gained weight and shuffles around her domicile in a drab house dress.  She is as lost as her poor dog, Sheba, who has apparently run off.  Lola's frequent plaintive cries "Come back, little Sheba" serve as emblematic of her futile attempts to call back the lost years of youth, vitality, hope, passion and meaning.  Those cries for little Sheba serve the same purpose here as does the incessant fog horn in "A Long Day's Journey Into Night." They are both constant reminders that the lady of the house is hopelessly lost and wandering around in a fog.  Ms. Krstansky offers a poignant performance that is pure genius in its ability to break our hearts and to cause us to ache for her emptiness and loss.

Adrianne Krstansky as Lola
Derek Hasenstab as Doc
"Come Back, Little Sheba"
Huntington Theatre Company
Calderwood Pavillion at BCA
Extended through May 2

Max Carpenter is Turk - part-time artist's model, javelin tosser and full-time narcissist and Lothario. Mr. Carpenter does a nice job of showing off both his chiseled body and the flabby soul of Turk, constantly pushing Marie to "put out," even as she awaits the arrival of her fiance.

Max Carpenter and Adrianne Krstansky 
in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of William Inge’s 
Come Back, Little Sheba, directed by David Cromer, 
playing through May 2
South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA. 
Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

Adam Kahler as The Postman does a very nice job of conveying his pity for Lola's loneliness, caving in to her entreaty to come in for some liquid refreshment.  He listens sympathetically as she inappropriately talks about her husband's history of alcohol abuse and his one year of sobriety.

Maureen Keiller is Mrs. Coffman, the neighbor with seven children to feed and clothe.  Ms. Keiller gives this character a nice dramatic arc, In the first act, she is aloof and mildly contemptuous of Lola.  But by Act II she has observed Lola's abusive treatment at the hands of the drunken Doc and steps up to serve as a support and ally for Lola.

Michael Knowlton is the Milkman.  He at first blows off Lola's attempts to engage him in conversation and a cup of coffee.  But her interest in his body building creates an amusing co-dependent bond between these unlikely comrades.  Mr. Knowlton takes a small role that could have been skim milk and churns it into satisfying buttermilk!

Nael Nacer plays the cuckolded finance, Bruce, with the  same quiet elegance and savoir faire that he brings to every role he portrays.  He is a solid professional who can always be counted on to do excellent work on the stage.  He makes good use of his limited time on the stage in this production.

Christopher Tarjan and Jeremy Browne serve as Ed Anderson and Elmo Huston, Doc's AA sponsor and fellow recovering alcoholic.  Their role in the most dramatic scene is key, for they physically intervene to stop Doc from furthering abusing Lola and forcibly remove him and take him to the rehab facility where he clearly belongs.

Boston audiences have been given an extra week to soak up the brilliance of this play and these performances.  Come back - to the BCA, to the professionalism of a Huntington production, to a classic American play.



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