This show is magnificent. It’s heartbreaking in the best way. Cathartic gold, Midwestern tea.
It’s chock full of that Kansas-grade, square-state repression: a good device to wind up on stage like a spring-loaded-toy and let loose just as the third act jitters. Emotions, emotions…compressed as though a glacier had run through and left the victims flat as the plains. The Midwest is an incubation tank for sad stoicism suppressing wild urges, right? Under superficial scrutiny, the menial nature of routined lives seems placid and predictable. Benign. Corn-fed. Simple. Upon tighter reflection, there are monsters creeping beneath the topsoil.
First, the Summer Company gives you Mark Yochum’s Doc Delaney. A placid Dad-type who looks as anonymous and strung-up by his necktie as any other 9-to-5 stiff. Yochum can drip with the low-rung mad-men desperation of a sullen entrepreneur, someone who dreamed big and falls flat à la Willy Loman. Imagine a disappointed Bob Newhart overcoming alcoholism. He is prototypical tie loose at the neck, unbuttoned cuffs, slumped-in-the-big-chair 1950’s white collar. Lovable, pathetic and as doe-eyed as a man about to cry.
The real star of the show comes with Susan McGregor-Laine’s Lola Delaney. So nondescript in her palpable American mother, she cradles into the role with affirmative regularity . She’s got such a comfortable presence on stage, she’s as instantly loved as her much adored but never seen “cutest little puppy”: Sheba.
And that’s it, right? The strange aspect to the title of this play: Sheba. What’s the deal with “Sheba”? Turns out Sheba is the saddest little thing you can see on the stage. Sheba is a woman’s groaning incapability to accept the tragic reality of the unknown:
Little Sheba! Little Sheba! Come back…Little Sheba!
It’s just about the most goddamn heartbreaking thing you’ve ever seen. It tugs on those existential strings like a sudden frown jerks the eyes. What is it to be lost? It’s to be in love, and for that love to vanish in the space of a moment. Lola calls out into the night for her defenseless dog, who her husband says “should have never grown old. Some things should never get old. That’s the way it is.”
There’s a glorious painfulness to watching the naive learn lessons. Empathy is truly tested in this play. It’s like a cathartic pin-cushion. You watch like a punching bag watches the punches. It cuts to every core and you’re felt sympathizing with all of these losers who can’t deal with the fact that it’s a bad rap. Expectation is folly.
Youth is broadsided by age in a matter of moments, then you become “fat and old and sloppy” and the game becomes two hard-boiled pathetic losers frantically chasing memory.
If we had gone to a doctor, she would have lived.
We were just kids. Kids don’t know how to look after things.
I remember you said you would love me forever and ever…ever and ever.
I remember you saying if I didn’t want to marry you, you would die.
The set was well-crafted. There should be credit to given to set designer John E. Lane, Jr. and lighting designer, Christina Levi. Basked in a burnt-orange drywall that had lost its autumnal crispness for a more dreary, choked sun; the walls were pocked by little hefts of dirty dust, age. Strong wooden doors show the era, crafted before over-manufacturing caused cheapness to encroach on quality. The furniture is sticky with the greatest generation’s first plastics, making little squeaky sounds when sat upon. The drapes sing of a fading optimism, colored with the standard floral ornateness wearing into the dusty pastel one might associate now as “old”. In their newness, these patterns were flags of the post-war housewife; part of a boom beginning to believe its perceived success was a reality.
In 1950, Betty Friedan was seven years away from surveying housewives on “the problem that has no name.” It’s there though. Creeping in the fixtures, on the curtains, in the pancake mix on the counter. This play is proto-feminist in the way it examines the housewife’s dilemma. Lola is a woman who was denied children because of circumstances, denied a job because of her husband’s will and therefore denied purpose. The only thing left for her to do is clean, cook, sit around and feel.
The focus of a parallel between young and old, sexually liberated versus sexually constrained is mighty precocious considering the old/young divide which would dominate the themes of the 1960’s. What you’ll see in this cast is archetypes being confounded by strange psychological blocking. Some of this display is handily done. Lauren Brendel’s “Marie”, the young, beautiful, and questionably flirtatious art student stays in the Delaney’s extra room. She manipulates with her good looks and charm to get the most of being a girl but still might sell herself short of her liberated dream for the sake of stability. Her observant, but coy personality masked by a sparkling white smile which sells the construction of what a girl ought to have been at the time. She uses it. It’s nicely done.
Tom Kolos’ milkman is so narcissistically obsessed with his own body he takes for granted that every woman should be as well. He plays the part up in a really indulgent self-satisfied way. It’s beautiful. His character is a crack at male culture, so concerned with masculinity it can’t even learn a woman’s name. This contrasts the caricatured Mrs. Coffman played by Heather Clark. She is s neighbor whose good intentions come off in little tid-bits, strokes of the insane: Well, being busy is being happy. It fits so well, like the epitomized Hours-like housewife tipping over the edge, just hitting that sweetly numb dole of better-living-through-chemistry. Her character is a strong force of the stoicism that built the household that goes on for the sake of going on: bubbly, with a side of cordial (but sterile) hospitality to serve the role.
The play can be corny, and for the most part that’s a good thing. There are some stretches of caricature that go a bit far. The young lovers romance seemed confusing: I thought maybe it was missing a bit of its seduction. Everyone was a bit alien, but sometimes they were a bit too much. When corniness was the mode of the era, it’s hard to tell who is overacting.
Nevertheless, this was a very tight ensemble which can really pull off that nasally Chicago-style twang with all of its bite and whine. There’s an energy to this play, one that wants desperately to be normal but still contains something queer. It wants something more, and the ensemble helps to compound wonderfully into the main narrative. The two leads kill it.
There is an enormous amount of charismatic, forlorn energy and it’s quite an experience to be jarred by this power. Credit has to go to director Justin Sines. He created a tumultuous feeling-farm with the basic materials of a suburban home. Don’t be mistaken thinking this is a boring play. It’s enthralling. You experience a roller-coaster of pity, empathy and that protruding doubt from America’s success story wanting and failing to become normal through simple living. There’s just simply more to it, and this play begets that notion. This play crawls with it. It will tickle you nastily with a nostalgia for a time when men were too much “men” to feel, and women were second fiddle to their restrained beastly pride. But not without hope for freedom.
Would you like to see more articles and reviews like this from Pittsburgh in the Round? Then help us out and donate to our indiegogo!
Special thanks to The Summer Company for complimentary press tickets. Come Back, Little Sheba continues at Duquesne Univeristy’s Genesius Theater, through July 24th. For tickets and more information on their season, click here.
Photos by Dale Hess.