COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA by William Inge (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 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, they're as intense, lacerating and upsetting as the best Greek tragedy.
Come Back, Little Sheba 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 left medical school to become a chiropractor. An alcoholic, he's been sober for almost a year. Like her husband, Lola has never realized her emotional dreams.
The title, a line repeated several times, is Lola's call from the doorstep for her lost dog, which 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. 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 needs.
Though the play's first act could be more tightly written, the second is incredibly powerful under Jackie Maxwell's direction, 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.
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 Lola's alone, we watch emptiness wash over her; 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 fiancé, provide good support, but it's Reid and Koslo who give real depth to this production.
In their performances, Doc and Lola break our hearts. And that's just what Inge intended.