Having never seen “Come Back, Little Sheba” the well-thought-of Transport Group’s revival Off Broadway at the Judson Church’s Gym was completely new to me. Sure, I’d seen pictures of Shirley Booth winning her Oscar for it, and tripping on her way up to the stage to accept it, but other than that, I was a newbie. Thought of by many to be an American classic at this point in time, I was rather dismayed by its’ endless First Act, and my horror at Heather MacRae’s frightening, elephantine presence that was all wrong for the lonely Mid-Western housewife, Lola. Her problem has never that she was THAT fat, but sad to say, Ms. MacRae now is. Known primarily as a full-throated vocalist and not primarily as an actress, this complex role is just too much for her. And she’s physically too much of a muchness.
This is a part of a William Inge repertory, but its’ value escaped me. I can’t describe Heather MacRae’s pachydermatous performance without noting how wrong she seemed in this part and how actually one-note bad she was in Act One. I was ready to leave.
But I thought it was going somewhere, so I stayed.
Act Two it became something else entirely. Rather than just a wan portrait of an obese childless woman, married to an ex-alcoholic chiropractor (The excellent Joseph Kolinksi), “Come Back Little Sheba” turned into a stern treatise on alcoholism and completely won me over.
Kolinski really kicks it upstairs as his battle with the bottle becomes the real point of the play, and its’ power was palpable. The audience is seated in two long, thin, tiny rows of two deep on opposite of an extended stage area. Set designer Dane Laffrey has practically put this kitchen-sink drama right in its’ laps. (And yes, there is a kitchen sink.) The fight Doc has with the two men who have come to cart him off to the hospital (or the mad house, it’s implied) to dry out, was dangerously close to involving me in its’ very near vicinity. I felt in jeopardy, too.
But then, that’s what alcoholics do to those around them. In 1950, “Come Back Little Sheba” must have been the first play about Alcoholics Anonymous and its’ powerful message still resonates today. So Act Two packed a gut-punch and completely changed its’ center of gravity from Heather MacRae’s immense avoirdupois to Joseph Kolinski’s truly frightening, violent drunk.The supporting players acquitted themselves amicably. Especially Heather Elless’ irritating performance of the irritating young beauty who is the lodger that is disrupting Doc’s life and marriage by simply being present. She’s so pretty, he can’t stand it. She was quite delightful as David T. Patterson as her studly. hunky track star squeeze, was suitably muscular and flirtatious.
Playwright/ Actor John Cariani has three scene-stealing moments as a postman, a milkman and a telegraph messenger respectively.I was not sure at first blush whether director Jack Cummings III pancake-flat approach to this old-time Proscenium arch drama was right in Act One which consisted of the incredibly overweight Heather MacRae sweating to run from one end of the oblong stage to the other, but in Act II when Cummings is thrusting alcoholism RIGHT INTO OUR FACES, I was down with it. It was gutsy, dangerous and as frightening as living with an alcoholic truly is.