COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA (IRC): 2019 Fringe review

“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.“—Tina Brock

18Come-BackLittleShebabyWilliamInge-1200x750COME BACK LITTLE SHEBA was William Inge’s first play. He liked its undercurrents and considered it his strongest work. Sheba didn’t do very well on stage, but when it was picked up by Paramount Pictures, and starred Burt Lancaster and Shirley Booth, it became a smash hit.  Inge’s other three hit plays followed: Picnic, Bus Stop, and Dark at the Top of the Stairs. All became movies.

You probably know that the missing dog, Sheba, isn’t in the play. If you didn’t, then I guess that’s a spoiler. This play is not about a dog, but about the strained relationship and the  interplay of a not completely happily married couple with deeply rooted problems. Lola Delaney (Tina Brock) tries to keep up a perky attitude to cover her pervasive loneliness. She needs little Sheba. Her only friends are stalwart delivery men who pop in briefly on the course of their jobs and then leave: Postman, Milkman, Western Union guy. (Bill Rahill, Thomas Dura, Adam Ritter, respectively, who also play other roles.)  John Zak does a remarkable turn as Lola’s recovering alcoholic husband, Doc Delaney. He seems to be much more affected by the romantic interests of their boarder, Marie (Barbaraluz Orlanda), than he is by his wife’s needs. He’s disturbed that Marie has both a boyfriend and a fiancé (Carlos Forbes, Adam Ritter). He’s shocked and overly interested in their goings on. Eventually playwright Inge’s interest in human motivations and behavior culminates in a violent climactic scene between Doc and Lola. 

Tina Brock is, of course, a proven actor and director. Last year’s Eccentricities of a Nightingale, staged at this location was a winner all around. In this instance, however, she needed to either star in it or direct it. Due to the concentrated intensity needed for her own role, it would have been a good idea to let someone else handle the direction this time. The play needs not only a strong sense of the texture of the whole work, but minute attention to its workings. A careless handling of details impacts on the performance. Quick solutions to stage business could have been thought out more, as there are too many shortcuts and little lapses:  A re-making of the Delaney living room that has characters praising the remarkable change has been reduced to the gesture of putting out three new throw pillows and pretending it’s a remake. Then there’s the expected dinner for four, but the presence of only two chairs at the table telegraphs that the dinner for four is not going to happen. Although Lola alludes to the big dinner supposedly in the making, and there’s a visible kitchen, there’s no sign of any meal in the works. At one point flatware needs to be removed from the table, and for that to happen her neighbor (Kassy Bradford) has to awkwardly steal it off the table to get rid of it and transition the scene. The devil’s in the details.

And there are limitations to the large, but not easily managed space at Bethany Mission Gallery: Their art collection hangs on the walls of the vast modern space, nullifying the play’s stated setting of an old house in the Midwest. And due to the layout of the second floor and the stairways, not all of the cast’s many entrances and exits work well. Nevertheless, it’s a performance space for the company, and that’s the important thing. 

The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium seems to be moving away from the ridiculous, from lots of Ionesco to last year’s Williams’ Eccentricities, and now this season’s Inge. I admire Tina Brock’s explanation in the Program: “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.“ Amen.

[Bethany Mission Gallery, 1527 Brandywine Street] September 3-22, 2019

 

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Kathryn Osenlund, theater and film junkie, is a former National Critics Institute fellow, NEA fellow in Arts Journalism, and member of the American Theater Critics Assn Steinberg and Osborn playwriting awards committee. A Barrymore Award nominator and professor emeritus in communications and theater, Kathryn also writes for NY-based CurtainUp.com. On twitter @theatrendorphin.