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BWW Reviews: COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA Marked by David Cromer's Magic Touch

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Come Back, Little Sheba

Written by William Inge, Directed by David Cromer; Scenic Design, Stephen Dobay; Costume Design, Sarah Laux; Lighting Design, Mike Durst; Sound Design, Jonathan Mastro; Production Stage Manager, Kevin Schlagle; Deck Supervisor, Jess Wolf

CAST (in order of appearance): Derek Hasenstab, Marie Polizzano, Adrianne Krstansky, Max Carpenter, Adam Zahler, Maureen Keiller, Michael Knowlton, Nael Nacer, Christopher Tarjan, Jeremy Browne, Will Lyman

Performances through April 26 by the Huntington Theatre Company at Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org

Come Back, Little Sheba was written and first produced sixty-five years ago, but it is nowhere near ready to be retired. Like fine wines and grande dames of the stage like Angela Lansbury and Chita Rivera, William Inge's play is a vintage classic American drama that has aged remarkably well. Under the direction of David Cromer, the Huntington Theatre Company production is first rate, an example of theatrical alchemy brewed from incisive writing, design realism, and honest, raw performances in a physically intimate space. As he did with Thornton Wilder's Our Town in 2012, Cromer turns the Roberts Studio Theatre into a time machine to transport the audience to a simpler place where the mundane is the medium of daily life.

Lost youth, faded beauty, and regrets for unfulfilled dreams weigh heavily in the stultified air of Doc and Lola Delaney's cluttered, cramped home in a run-down, mid-20th century neighborhood of a midwestern city. Married over twenty years and approaching middle age, each gets vicarious pleasure from the vivacious college student who boards with them. Lola's memories and longings are triggered by Marie's amorous escapades with Turk, an athletic hunk who poses for her art class, while Doc resents the young man's very existence, at the same time fantasizing about what he is missing. With its affable conversational check-ins and chaste kisses, the Delaney's tenuous relationship is held together by its small routines and their fear of venturing outside the box they've constructed to keep the demons at bay, but tremors threaten its foundation.

Adrianne Krstansky gives a nuanced, heartbreaking performance (arguably one of her best), taking us on Lola's lonely journey as she struggles to matter. Her character is a dichotomy, constantly reminiscing about her youth and beauty in a way that indicates she believes her best days are in the past, yet keeping hope alive in defiance of all evidence. Although Doc seems devoted, his energy is funneled into maintaining his sobriety, creating a distance between them that Lola cannot traverse, leaving her scrambling for companionship and connection. Be it the postman, the milkman, the neighbor hanging laundry, or a caller with the wrong number, Lola scrounges for every snippet of conversation like a beggar pleading for a handout. When she calls out from the porch for little Sheba, her beloved dog gone missing, it is the culmination of her existential aloneness.

Matching Krstansky's emotional intensity, Derek Hasenstab simmers and explodes as Doc, the epitome of a so-called "dry drunk" who takes great pride in his long (for him) sobriety. Coming up on a year of recovery, he includes a silent recitation of the serenity prayer in his morning routine and reaches out to drunks who need help as part of his twelve-step work. He is so squeaky clean, he even clears last night's dirty dishes and prepares breakfast with a smile for Marie and Lola. Hasenstab nimbly portrays his character's subtext, preparing us for him to stumble before Doc has an inkling of the trouble he's in, and chillingly plays the climactic scenes when he spirals out of control.

However, the acting is most impressive in the moments when it seems like nothing is happening, when Cromer carefully orchestrates the pace to reflect life in real time. For the first few minutes of the play, Doc is alone in the kitchen making the coffee, lighting the gas stove, clearing the table, and sitting in silent meditation. The collective heart beat of the audience is forced to slow, to be in step with the Delaney household, before it gets a little jolt from Marie's energetic entrance. The action ebbs and flows throughout the play, with time passing more slowly when Lola is home alone, accelerating when she and Doc share a swing dance in the living room, and nearly stopping altogether when she awaits Doc's return from a night out. In a sense, Cromer becomes a puppeteer, manipulating the audience's emotions as well as its breathing by the quiet dramatic force of his direction.

Whenever Marie Polizzano (Marie) and Max Carpenter (Turk) are onstage, there is a palpable quickening of the pulse, driven by their youth and their hormones, leaving Lola virtually breathless and tightening Doc's self-restraints. Their chemistry is hot and sexy, albeit with a modicum of control as befits the era, and without any self-consciousness. Carpenter revels in Turk's devil-may-care demeanor and showing off his stunning physique, and Polizzano is delightfully exuberant and smart, easily convincing us that everyone is charmed by her. Nael Nacer appears briefly as the hometown fiancé, a buttoned down executive more suitable for marrying than Turk, and his presence further propels the Delaneys on their tragic trajectory.

Maureen Keiller (Mrs. Coffman) is the judgmental, no-nonsense neighbor with a boatload of kids who looks down her nose at Lola's slovenliness and non-existent housekeeping skills. She is the ant to Lola's grasshopper, never having time for the proffered cup of coffee, but her attitude changes as a result of events. Keiller shifts her tone and posture to reflect the altered relationship between them, becoming a more compassionate figure. Michael Knowlton (Milkman) employs similar tools to show his character softening towards Lola, going from a hurried, brusque manner to smiling and conversant when she shows interest in his body building practice. Adam Zahler is the patient, good-natured postman who takes pity on Lola long enough to sit for a glass of water. Christopher Tarjan (Ed Anderson) and Jeremy Browne (Elmo Huston) are Doc's AA cronies who come to Lola's rescue. As a vocal presence only (Radio Announcer), the dulcet tones of Will Lyman add significant color and flair to the play.

Cromer and scenic designer Stephen Dobay have opted to seat the audience on two sides of the set, at a ninety degree angle to each other. The larger seating area faces the kitchen and the back door, while the side seats face the living room and have a view of the comings and goings through the front door of the house. By design, everyone experiences the play differently, depending on their sight lines. Mike Durst lights each room in keeping with the time of day or night, and helps convey the foreboding in the wee hours of the morning after. Costume designer Sarah Laux captures the styles of the time period and helps to define Lola's frumpiness with a succession of ill-fitting house dresses. The radio in the living room is a central piece and comes in loud and clear, thanks to sound designer Jonathan Mastro.

Come Back, Little Sheba may not be bright and shiny and new, but its life span has some advantages in focusing our attention on its central themes of aging and the passage of time. It shows that something old has value, that human nature hasn't changed very much, and life is made up of a series of small moments. Notice Doc handling Marie's scarf. Catch Lola escaping into the radio announcer's narration. In Cromer's vision, the small moments and the smaller details that comprise them tell the story. All you have to do is watch and listen carefully to appreciate it.

Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson (Adrianne Krstansky, Derek Hasenstab)


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