Kevin Anderson and S. Epatha Merkerson
in Come Back, Little Sheba
(© Joan Marcus)
Kevin Anderson and S. Epatha Merkerson
in Come Back, Little Sheba
(© Joan Marcus)
S. Epatha Merkerson takes the stage as Lola Delaney in Michael Pressman's modestly affecting revival of William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba, now at Manhattan Theatre Club's Biltmore Theatre, with three strikes already against her -- at least for those audiences familiar with this landmark 1950 drama.

First -- and to some foremost -- she is an African-American woman playing a role clearly meant for a white performer. Inge did not write a drama about interracial marriage -- nor is such a union likely in the play's time period. Further, nothing in Pressman's production ever acknowledges Merkerson's race.

Second, Merkerson doesn't physically fit Inge's description of Lola -- the one-time "prettiest girl in school" turned into a fat, sloppy housewife. The actress is what she probably always was -- an attractive woman still in fairly good trim. (The script has been slightly amended so that Lola is now "almost 45" rather than "almost 40.") Worse, even in her first entrance, she seems not particularly disheveled. (Mind you, Inge reportedly loathed the casting of Shirley Booth, who won both the Tony and the Oscar for the role, as not being pretty enough for Lola.)

Lastly, Merkerson -- as anyone who has seen her prior work on stage, for 14 seasons as Anita Van Buren on NBC's Law & Order, or in her Emmy Award-winning role in HBO's Lackawanna Blues can attest -- is a performer of uncommon strength and intelligence, attributes that can hardly be applied to Lola. So, it's a testament to Merkerson's consummate skill and smart choices that she basically hits a home run -- or at least a solid triple -- eventually delivering a heartbreaking portrayal of an unhappy, frightened, and almost infantilized woman who must finally grow up and face reality after her alcoholic husband Doc (Kevin Anderson) falls off the wagon again.

What audiences can't know at the show's start -- and what makes Merkerson's triumph even more impressive -- is that she has a fourth strike against her in Anderson. Perhaps it's the advantage of Merkerson having played the part longer -- she did the show in L.A. last summer (with Alan Rosenberg as Doc) -- but Anderson doesn't quite grasp Doc's internal contradictions. In the admittedly slow-paced first act, we're meant to see that Doc is fighting every minute for his sobriety, and that he understands that the 20-year routine between him and Lola, as she coos and calls him Daddy, has not only become nothing but mindless repetition. The couple has found no healthy way to overcome the circumstances that led to their hasty marriage -- Lola's premarital pregnancy, which resulted in a stillbirth -- and its unfortunate aftermath. Instead, they rely on the same behavior that was probably the hallmark of their courtship, and which has long since outlived its usefulness. (Whether Lola realizes she has essentially married her father is unclear.)

Not only does Anderson deliver little more than blandness in the first act; his longing toward their seemingly innocent young boarder Marie (Zoe Kazan, offering up a quirky and sometimes inventive take on a traditional ingenue role) and hatred towards her hunky quasi-boyfriend Turk (a perfectly cast Brian J. Smith) -- which ultimately results in Doc going on a bender -- is ill-defined. Whether Doc is truly in lust with Marie the person, or the ideal of Marie -- essentially, Lola before they had sex -- needs to be more clearly spelled out by the actor.

In what should be Anderson's crowning achievement -- when Doc returns home severely drunk and threatens to murder Lola with a hatchet -- the actor does rise somewhat to the circumstances. But even his best moments are undercut by a slight actorish feel, as if he's thought too hard about every gesture. Conversely, Merkerson commands this scene, ricocheting from wariness to fear to resignation to doubt almost effortlessly and undeniably brilliantly. And in the play's last scene, Merkerson's Lola has clearly been transformed -- signified in part by giving up any hope of finding her long-vanished dog, Little Sheba -- while Anderson seems little different than at the show's beginning.

Pressman, who stages the work simply, has otherwise cast the piece smartly, with a particularly vivid contribution from Brenda Wehle as the Teutonic neighbor Mrs. Coffman, and spot-on work from Chad Hoeppner, Lyle Kanouse, Matthew J. Williamson, and Keith Randolph Smith in smaller roles. The design team, notably James Noone (sets) and Jennifer von Mayrhauser (costumes), also make effective contributions to the production, setting the work in its proper place and time period.

True, even in a perfect production, not every member of a 2008 New York audience would relate to the story of an unhappily codependent Midwestern housewife in 1950 -- perhaps one reason the work has never before been revived on Broadway. But in this imperfect one, Merkerson manages to pierce the heart -- and cynicism -- of many people in the Biltmore's seats, even if they would never have believed it possible when she first stepped on stage.