One thinks of S. Epatha Merkerson, or as she's better known, Lt. Anita Van Buren on NBC's long-running "Law and Order," as the quintessential New York strong woman who commands men and holds them accountable for their actions. Playing mostly no-nonsense characters in her award winning television career, Ms. Merkerson is an accomplished stage actor as well, and she is riveting in William Inge's 1950 play, "Come Back, Little Sheba." It is even more amazing to see this sturdy actress transform herself before our very eyes, into the frumpy, repressed housewife, Lola.
In her run-down Midwestern house, Lola darts upstairs and downstairs like a frightened deer caught in the headlights, looking very much like part of the faded wallpaper that's never been changed. Slipping in and out of the present as easily as she steps in and out of her housecoats, Lola seems determined to keep the past, as well as her troubled marriage, alive.
Doc, a recovering alcoholic and Lola's husband, is equally determined to let the past stay where it is ï¿½ in the bottle. On the brink of relapse, Doc's withdrawal is more palpable each time he dismisses his wife's lonely prattle, and broods over his own lost glory days. Making his way back from the last binge, 11 months sober, we root for him as he methodically recites the AA prayer, even though we don't believe a word he says.
Kevin Anderson portrays a seething Doc who keeps his emotions tightly wrapped as he banters with their boarder, Marie, played coyly by Broadway newcomer, Zoe Kazan. Her dalliances with the handsome javelin thrower Turk, played by Brian J. Smith, another novice to Broadway, rekindle feelings in Doc he no longer recognizes, and canï¿½t ignore. The young couple's passion magnifies the lack therein for both Lola and Doc, in scenes reminiscent of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Lola blushingly flirts, encourages the couple, giving them opportunities to be alone, even snooping on occasion. Doc, on the other hand, does not see hope springing eternal, and reverts back to the depths of his debilitating disease.
When all is unraveled, and the dirty secrets are revealed, these two co-dependent misfits somehow fit together in ways that outsiders can never comprehend. The next-door neighbor who hears way too much, the postman, the milkman, all knock on Lola's door, bringing with them a sense of routine and fleeting ties to the outside world. They enable Lola to perceive herself as almost normal in an abnormal existence as she begs each to stay, have a glass of water, and spend some time. Their reactions to her entreaties magnify her loneliness and fragility.
We watch her wander pathetically from door to door, looking for the puppy, the "little Sheba," that escaped so long ago, much like her youth, her beauty and her love. As she begs for the pup and her dreams to "come back," she's a woman seemingly incapable of surviving in the real world -- but survive she does. And her transformation becomes all the more poignant as she summons up all the inner strength she can muster in her ultimate life or death moment to save herself and her husband. That's the Epatha we have come to know and love.
Inge's play is powerful, and the intensity of the characters and their relationships is timeless, even if the old black rotary phone on the table that Lola dials to call for help, is not. But sometimes, you just have to let the past stay where it is and move on. For the present, however, go see "Come Back Little Sheba." There may be a Tony waiting for its star, S. Epatha Merkerson. And in case you're wondering what the "S" stands for, it's "Superb."
What the press had to say.....
"S. Epatha Merkerson portrays this housebound wife of an alcoholic, in a performance that stops the heart." "Revitalizing production."
New York Times
"An old-fashioned but still-engaging portrait of a strained marriage." & "The flaw in director Michael Pressman's production is that everything - set, clothes, even Lola herself - is too middle-class neat and tidy. That stuff might work on Wisteria Lane, but it goes against the core of this story."
New York Daily News
"S. Epatha Merkerson is one of those actors who can bring a simple, challenging honesty to simple, unchallenging banality. That's just as well, because there's an awful lot of simple, unchallenging banality to go around in William Inge's 58-year-old pseudo-classic 'Come Back, Little Sheba.'" & "Michael Pressman's pedestrian staging is as adequate as the play deserves, and a miscast Merkerson makes an adorable Lola - sincere, compassionate and, well . . . miscast"
New York Post
Time hasn't been kind to "Come Back, Little Sheba," one of the big hits of the 1949-50 Broadway season." & "Of course, director Michael Pressman's miscast and generally flat production does not make the play look any better." & "Merkerson plausibly rattles away in a faintly southern accent as nice but clueless Lola.,,, Merkerson's dim bulb of a Lola appears merely pathetic." & "Like Lola's missing pooch mentioned in the title, the antiquated drama proves to be a dog without bark or bite."
"It is unlikely that anyone can make this obvious old soaper hold the stage today. Certainly, Merkerson is wasted trying." & "Merkerson, despite those winning dimples, simply seems too intelligent and secure to inhabit a woman who prattles to strangers and wanders around the messy bungalow (by James Noone) remembering yesterday's sexy dances."
"Ms. Merkerson, whose Tony-nominated turn in 1990's "The Piano Lesson" was instrumental in winning her the "Law & Order" role, has suffused this grasping, anxious housewife with a heart-splitting dose of optimism in Michael Pressman's gently stirring revival of Inge's 1950 drama." & "But for every little thing he gets wrong, Mr. Pressman gets the play's freighted, sputtering romance right. With a minimum of fuss, he has mounted a well-made production of a well-made play about primarily well-made men and women ï¿½ a stage genre that has been AWOL nearly as long as Little Sheba, Lola's beloved (and metaphorically overworked) little dog. But sometimes they come back after all, looking a little musty but welcome all the same. It's enough to bring a smile to one's face."
New York Sun
"What a difference casting makes! TV's popular policewoman, S. Epatha Merkerson, and a gifted stage actor, Kevin Anderson, together as a middle-aged married couple -- even a troubled one -- do not click." & "Merkerson is much older and older-looking than Anderson, who looks even younger than his years; they convey more of a mother-and-son than a marital relationship. Even their acting styles, suitable to their respective principal mediums, television and theater, do not effectively mesh." & "I don't believe I am betraying something you must surely have guessed, namely that Sheba, symbolically as well as logically, does not come back. Regrettably, I suspect that the same goes for the play."
"If casting is 90 percent of direction, the new production of "Come Back, Little Sheba" that opened last night at the Biltmore Theatre is a direction disaster." & "Merkerson is a gifted actress. Broadway should welcome her back in practically anything she chose. But the part of Lola, who spends most of the evening wearing an apron and moping about the kitchen, hardly seems an appropriate choice for her." & "They are miscast all in an almost perverse insistence on wrong choices, led by Merkerson, stuck playing poor Lola. This revival will do nothing to revive Inge's flagging reputation."
Jacques le Sourd
"This production,.., wanly staged by Michael Pressman, never gets beyond small moments of poignancy. There's no sense of a strong director with a fresh perspective infusing energy into the material. Even the change of making the marriage interracial does little to quicken interest." & "One reason the ending is flat is that the director and performers never give us enough reason to care about Lola and Doc."
"A fine production from Manhattan Theatre Club - "Sheba" delivers a heartbreaking portrait of a marriage dissolving in the disappointments of unrealized hopes and dreams." & "A fully realized Lola is the key to the success of "Sheba." Find an appealing, sympathetic actress to play the role, and you are halfway home." & "S. Epatha Merkerson,.., radiates genuine warmth and generosity. Lola is a nice yet needy woman, and nice isn't easy to pull off if neediness turns to whining. Merkerson's performance is subtle, just about perfect in finding the right balance between sweet and syrupy.
"The play still has its affecting moments, thanks to Inge's clear empathy for his troubled characters. These aspects are only partly realized in this awkwardly cast revival directed by Michael Pressman. Merkerson,..., underplays with a sad dignity that doesn't quite convey Lola's ridiculousness. Anderson, meanwhile, seems far too young and vital to be the sad, middle-aged Doc, though he's genuinely frightening in his second-act drunken scene." & "But despite the strenuous efforts of all concerned, this "Sheba" might not have been worth bringing back."