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LA Theater Review

Come Back, Little Sheba

Like other classics by William Inge (Picnic, Bus Stop), this 1950 kitchen-sink drama is tricky to revive. It's not just the milieu depicted that has changed since that time; playwriting styles have also markedly evolved. Director Michael Pressman does a commendable job of fashioning a dramatic time capsule, taking us back to when the well-made domestic drama was a treasured mainstay.

Sheba was extremely bold in its day, with its story elements of children conceived out of wedlock and the ravages of alcoholism. Though the shock value is gone, the play still illuminates a world of crushingly mundane suburban existence in which repressed despair and anxiety ultimately surface. The narrative revolves around the metaphor of a lost puppy, Little Sheba, reflecting on life's missed opportunities and the disappointments of a shotgun marriage. Lola (S. Epatha Merkerson) is the longtime devoted wife of chiropractor Doc (Alan Rosenberg) -- a failed physician and an on-the-wagon alcoholic. The desperately lonely Lola reaches out to everyone around -- the milkman (Matthew J. Williamson), the postman (Lyle Kanouse), a standoffish neighbor (Brenda Wehle) -- to share her soul-crunching challenges in dealing with a raging-drunk spouse and an unfulfilling marriage. A constant reminder of the once-great promise of this union emerges from the couple's young boarder, Marie (Jenna Gavigan); Marie's flavor-of-the-month suitor Turk (Josh Cooke); and the more promising long-term prospects of Marie's groom-to-be (Bill Heck). Lola's endearingly idiosyncratic characteristics generate ripples of laughter, while the cauldron of inner turmoil that is the marriage gradually builds, erupting in the shattering second act.

In a role that earned a Tony and an Oscar for Shirley Booth, Merkerson gives the finest performance, allowing the poignancy of her plight to slowly but profoundly emerge in a nuanced and sensitive portrayal of this desperate housewife. Rosenberg's subtle performance takes longer to kick in, but he redeems himself in the powerful and cathartic climax. Gavigan is superb as the vivacious boarder, and Cooke's narcissistic jock is a standout. The production design is exemplary, highlighted by James Noone's flawlessly detailed two-level set. This richly satisfying production takes a tastefully nostalgic look back at Broadway's golden age.

Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre,

9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City.

Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m. Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. (Thu. 8:30 p.m. Jul. 12. Dark Thu. Jul. 5.) Jun. 24-Jul. 15. (213) 628-2772.

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