COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA by William Inge, directed by Jackie Maxwell, with Corrine Koslo, Ric Reid, Julia Course, Sharry Flett and Kevin McGarry (Shaw). At the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Runs in rep to October 19. $24-$90. 1-800-511-7429, shawfest.com. See listing. Rating: NNNN
Popular 50s playwright William Inge wrote a series of domestic dramas about ordinary people, set in Middle America. The scripts potentially veer toward melodrama, but given the right production, his plays are as intense, lacerating and upsetting as the best of Greek tragedy.
Jackie Maxwell has previously directed Inge's Picnic and Bus Stop at the Shaw Festival, and this season she turns to his first Broadway success, Come Back, Little Sheba, which centres on a long-married Midwestern couple, Doc and Lola Delaney (Ric Reid and Corrine Koslo), whose seemingly placid but actually patched-together relationship unravels over the course of the play.
Years earlier, Doc had left medical school to become a chiropractor, taking up what, in the 50s, was considered a lesser profession. An alcoholic, he's been sober for almost a year. Like her husband, Lola's dreams have never been realized. Still, they float along in a day-to-day, complaisant fashion, calming each other and not wanting to go beneath the surface of their lives.
The title, a line repeated several times, is Lola calling from the doorstep for her lost dog, who wandered off one day and never returned, much like the couple's hopes.
The addition to the Delaney household of attractive student boarder Marie (Julia Course) creates an unexpected triangle, for Doc has both a paternal concern for her and also more sexual feelings, especially when Marie brings home fellow student Turk (Kevin McGarry), a handsome athlete who also catches Lola's attention. She encourages the relationship between the younger people, a way of sublimating her own physical and emotional needs.
Though the play's first act could be more tightly written, the second is incredibly powerful, especially in the hands of Koslo and Reid, two of the finest actors at the festival.
Their nuanced scenes together are remarkable in the variety of needs they each express, while their explosive, dangerous fight in the second act, when Doc has an ugly drunken episode, is intense and draining. The actors also know just how to play the ambiguous ending, with its hint of a brighter future for the pair.
The playwright gives Lola a number of scenes on her own, and Koslo - an actor who plays comedy as adeptly as tragedy - creates a character whose sadness is covered over with constant talk, flirtations and easy laughs. When she's alone, we watch emptiness wash over Lola; she turns to fantasy for an outlet, but the real world keeps intruding.
The other actors, including Sharry Flett as a neighbour who encourages Lola to have a more productive life and Andrew Bunker as Marie's big-city fiance - the play's triangular relationships are many - provide good support, but it's Reid and Koslo who give real depth to this production.
Their performances as Doc and Lola break our hearts. And that's just what Inge intended.