The true impact of director David Cromer’s haunting new production of William Inge’s classic play Come Back, Little Sheba isn’t felt in the theater itself, or even when the curtain comes down, deeply affecting though that moment may be. It hits you much later, when you’re alone, getting ready for sleep, perhaps—and the crushing weight of time lost, opportunities wasted, and relationships let go comes at you full force in the darkness.
Don’t be fooled by the disarming title: Come Back, Little Sheba is a work that demands a steep emotional toll from its audiences, and reaches down deep into the depths of human experience and tragedy. It’s what Cromer calls “a tiny play,” in that it zeroes in on the quiet lives of small people. That’s what makes it so powerful, however—though written in 1950, the play could be about any one of us.
Produced true to the time of its publication, Little Sheba comes to life within a single-family home, beautifully rendered by scenic designer Stephen Dobay. Every detail, from the retro radio set to the chrome coffee percolator, transports the audience to the production’s mid-century setting. The unique corner setup allows a slightly different view depending on where the spectator is seated: one person may see the kitchen best, while another is afforded a peek up the stairs to the second floor. Featured prominently from any direction, however, high up on a kitchen shelf, is the play’s silent antagonist: a full, shining bottle of whiskey.
The production tells the story of Doc and Lola, a childless couple in a sexless marriage approaching middle age, people with no friends, family, or success to speak of. Doc is a recovering alcoholic; the effects of long-term substance abuse are chillingly referred to as his “sickness.” When the couple takes in the college-aged Marie as a tenant, her easy charm and vibrant sensuality remind them of old regrets and unearth repressed tensions that explode in a violent climax.
The play focuses with merciless, reflective clarity on how quickly life passes by—on just how inescapable the rush of time is that overtakes us like a tide, leaving us in the dust. Furthermore, it encapsulates the shattered promises of the middle-class American dream. Little Sheba is a masterpiece of the everyday tragedy of being alive, of careless youth juxtaposed with jaded age, of the tumultuous realities of long-term marriage, and of the price of trading safety for experience.
And its power is magnified by its several long, quiet scenes. While some may find that these considerably slow down the pacing of the play, the result is felt in the shifting tone and emotional weight that is produced by these portraits of solitude. There is something painfully human in watching Lola putter around her empty house as the day drags by without her, in watching Doc get up alone and make coffee for himself as the sun comes up. Nothing needs to be said, not even music is needed to carry across the message of these scenes: The loneliness of daily monotony is something universally felt.
Adrianne Krstansky is utterly astounding as Lola. She drives the play, each scene providing solid proof of her complete mastery of the role. Krstansky’s Lola is a woman robbed of her youth, her vitality, and her ability to bear children, but who, despite her losses, bears a courageously big heart. She maintains an innocence and a depth of emotion that lurks beneath a facade of pathetic loneliness and quailing desperation for human contact. With each consecutive interaction with the rest of the cast, the audience is slowly clued in: There is more to Lola than what her vapid, childish earnestness suggests. She is a person who has survived. She has endured—and she will continue on, in spite of a world that continues to abuse her tender spirit.
“It’s all forgotten now,” Doc sighs when Lola tries to reconnect with him over memories of the early days, when they were young, beautiful, and in love. Little Sheba reminds us all of what’s at stake when we forget to slow down for a while in our day-to-day lives—and let ourselves go in the process of living.
HUNTINGTON THEATRE COMPANY PRESENTS: COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA. CALDERWOOD PAVILION AT THE BCA. 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. EXTENDED RUN THROUGH MAY 2. ALL AGES/$25-78. HUNTINGTONTHEATRE.ORG