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William Inge, Come Back

Kelli Bocock Natale and Richard Lambert in the New Phoenix Theatre production of William Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba," playing through April 21. (photo by Michael Walline)

Come Back, Little Sheba at the New Phoenix

The production of William Inge’s 1950 play, Come Back, Little Sheba, directed by Joe Natale and starring Kelli Bocock Natale and Richard Lambert, allows Buffalo to participate in the national rediscovery of one of the nation’s great neglected playwrights.

Encouraged by Tennessee Williams, Inge wrote Come Back, Little Sheba in the late 1940s, while he was still a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. The play made its steady way toward Broadway, where it was a modest success, kept running when the cast and author accepted reduced payment for their work. Shirley Booth won a Tony for her starring performance and an Oscar for playing the same role in the 1952 film—one of her rare film appearances.

The play is written in the post World War II realist style. Like many plays of this genre, it deals with taboo social issues, in this case alcoholism, repressed sexuality, and a pre-marital pregnancy.

The play takes us to a small Midwestern town were we meet Doc and Lola, who were obliged to marry years before, when Lola became pregnant. This unexpected turn in their lives meant that Doc abandoned a promising future as a medical doctor to become a chiropractor. In a tragic twist, their baby died and an incompetent midwife’s actions left Lola unable to bear another child. Doc’s alcoholism brings further stress to their lives.

As the play begins, Lola’s untidy ways and lack of enthusiasm for housework stand in stark contrast to Doc’s orderly ways and those of their boarder, Marie. At this point, Doc has been sober for a full year, but it is clear that he is sorely disappointed with his life and with Lola. For her part, Lola, no longer the lithe and attractive girl she once was, is bored, but does her best to be cheerful and to be loving toward Doc. Still, she has a recurring dream that Sheba, the pet dog that disappeared many years ago, has returned.

The original reviews of the play were mixed. While Shirley Booth’s performance as Lola was universally praised, critics often opined that she had overcome the inferior material. Inge was ironically faulted for his use of symbolism—the dream of little Sheba; the phallic symbol of the javelin belonging to Marie’s boyfriend, Turk; and so forth. Interestingly, Arthur Miller was praised for even more obvious and heavy-handed symbolism in Death of a Salesman, which had debuted on Broadway just the year before. Inge was also faulted for his use of melodramatic devices, despite the fact that the play, in keeping with the realist style, offered no tidy resolution, and explored unpioneered social territory.

Inge did enjoy notable success. In 1953, he received a Pulitzer Prize for Picnic, which enjoyed a successful Broadway run in a production directed by Joshua Logan. Bus Stop, directed by the great Harold Clurman, was a hit in 1955. The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, directed by Elia Kazan, was similarly successful in 1957. These productions showcased some of the great actors of the period: Eileen Heckart, Reta Shaw, Kim Stanley, and Paul Newman in Picnic; Kim Stanley again in Bus Stop with Elaine Stritch; Eileen Heckart again in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs with Pat Hingle and Teresa Wright. The films were similarly triumphant.

In this context, it is strange to note that among the giants of American post-war drama, Inge was left behind. Both Tennessee Williams and he would find critics becoming increasingly unkind after the 1950s, while substance abuse and despondency arguably took a toll on their work. But whereas Williams’s reputation remained secure in the status of his great earlier works—Glass Menagerie, Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—Inge saw his reputation spiral and his name fade into obscurity.

It is worth noting that Inge was not alone in this regard, and a common thread can arguably be found among the writers who continued to earn favor and those who did not. Williams, Inge, and their earlier, but still working colleagues, Terrence Rattigan and Noel Coward, were gay, and focused on issues of importance to sexual outsiders, including women.

Lillian Hellman, too, found herself in a battle to maintain her reputation after the 1960s when she opened the New York Times and saw a list of American “playwrights who counted,” and her name wasn’t on it. It’s an old story; from Aphra Behn and Susanna Centlivre (great women writers of the English Restoration who fell into obscurity) to Sophie Treadwell and Susan Glaspell (early 20th century writers who suffered a similar fate), even women who were wildly influential in their prime fall into obscurity once they are neglected by the academic and critical establishment.

It is commonplace in theater history to mark the 1956 opening of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger as watershed moment, sending English theater into a new and invigorating period of gritty, realistic, “kitchen sink” drama, and lending dignity to masculine working class protagonists.

In recent years, however, William Inge has been enjoying resurgence—while Look Back in Anger, despite repeated attempts, seems unrevivable.

A recent Broadway revival of Come Back, Little Sheba starring S. Epatha Merkerson as Lola placed a very favorable spotlight on the author, and critics are finally coming around to appreciating his masterful playwriting, character development, and insight into post-war social mores.

This resurgence in interest in Inge will continue with summer when director Michael Wilson stages a concert reading of one of Inge’s several “lost plays,” Off the Main Road, as a Broadway “sneak preview” for the Manhattan Theatre Club and part of the William Inge Theatre Festival. (The play tells the story of a mother who goes into hiding with her daughter.)

Come Back, Little Sheba will play at the New Phoenix Theatre on yhe Park (95 Johnson Park, 853-1334) through April 21.