S. Epatha Merkerson and Jenna Gavigan
in Come Back, Little Sheba
(© Craig Schwartz)
S. Epatha Merkerson and Jenna Gavigan
in Come Back, Little Sheba
(© Craig Schwartz)
There is a deep, aching sense of loneliness and loss that pervades much of the late William Inge's work, and his first major play, Come Back, Little Sheba, which made its Broadway debut in 1950, is rooted in this kind of despair. Sheba is not revived as often as Inge's later, more popular works, Bus Stop and Picnic, so the current production at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, starring S. Epatha Merkerson and Alan Rosenberg, had "must see" written all over it.

But anticipation sometimes surpasses actualization, and Michael Pressman's rather dry production is dearly short on emotional involvement. Moreover, it tends to illustrate the rather dated aspects of the script -- particularly the often stilted dialogue between Doc (Rosenberg) and his wife of 25 years, Lola (Merkerson). Their union was a forced marriage, the result of an unplanned pregnancy in which the infant died. Doc gave up his dreams of becoming an MD and settled for a smaller career as a chiropractor. Lola gradually lost her looks and focused on taking care of Doc. The couple never did have children, but eventually they did have a puppy, Sheba, who one day simply "vanished into thin air."

We never see the cute little Sheba, but Lola stills dreams of her, talks about her, and stands out on the front porch, plaintively calling for her. The missing Sheba, of course, becomes a metaphor for all that has also vanished in Doc and Lola's lives -- not just children, but dreams of a fulfilling career, a happier life, beauty, money, sexual satisfaction, and a deeper, more personal connection between them.

Merkerson is the standout of the show, beautifully capturing the worn-down weariness of Lola, and her heartbreaking sense of isolation from all that she cares about. She is a warm ball of neediness, a woman who cajoles the postman (Lyle Kanouse) and the milkman (Matthew J. Williamson) into the house just to have someone to talk to for five minutes. She's also taken to spying on Marie (a lovely Jenna Gavigan), the pretty young college student from out-of-town who rents out the dining room-turned-bedroom, and who has become a bit of a substitute for the child she and Doc lost. Lola looks forward to Marie's romantic dalliances with a childlike naivety about what's really going on, but is painfully aware that Marie has what she does not.

As for Doc, it's not just his career path that has left him and Lola in financial straights. His own despair and personal demons have led him to the bottle, and this rather quiet, polite man becomes a vicious drunk, brutal in both words and deeds. As the show begins, Doc is coming up on his one-year anniversary in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Throughout the first act we see him being pushed closer to the edge by circumstances and feelings he cannot control. The flirtatious Marie sends his libido spinning, and her amorous jugglings with both her soon-to-visit hometown boyfriend, Bruce (Bill Heck), and local jock Turk (Josh Cooke), pits his own urgings against a sense of moral righteousness and a remembrance of his own youthful indiscretions with Lola.

It's a complicated internal landscape, much of which stays hidden in Rosenberg's performance. The buildup to his eventual fall off the wagon is small and subtle, and doesn't elevate emotional levels enough for the audience to really care when he finally attacks Lola. That pivotal scene moves in a kind of contemplative slow motion, as if it were a rehearsal, instead of in-the-moment ease of action. The audience is left distanced and detached, just when they should be fully involved and committed.

The technical aspects of the production are grand. Scenic designer James Noone has created a lovely old two-story Midwest home in which to play out this drama, while evocative lighting and sound, by Jane Cox and Cricket S. Myers, respectively, add to the experience. But neither their work nor Merkerson's can make this Sheba entirely successful.