Friday, July 13, 2007


This year we decided to do something a little different on the 4th of July -- we got in the car and drove down to Los Angeles to see the Kirk Douglas Theater's revival production of COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA. One of the main draws was the presence in the lead role of S. Epatha Merkerson. We've been big fans of her work on LAW & ORDER, but I had completely forgotten that my first experience of her work had in fact been on the stage. Back in '78 when I went to D.C.'s National Theater to see the touring company of Shange's FOR COLORED GIRLS WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE WHEN THE RAINBOW IS ENUF, Merkerson was one of the talented young women on stage. The name, however, had long slipped from my memory. When Merkerson won all those awards for LAKAWANNA BLUES last year, it was a belated testament to her considerable theater skills. I'd known of her work in August Wilson plays, but, like I say, I'd completely forgotten having witnessed those skills so early in her career.

I had seen the film version of William Inge's play, starring Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster, many times over the years -- and so was curious to see how the revival would approach such firmly established interpretations. Rather like seeing somebody else play Stanley in STREETCAR, no?
So, we made our way south to the theater, in the heart of Culver City, one of those neighborhoods in mid-rediscovery stage. Turned out all the restaurants in the neighborhood were closed for the holiday, but we'd already eaten over in Ladera Heights at Pann's, my favorite neighborhood cafe in all L.A. -- The audience was an interesting mix of season ticket holders, people who just love Inge's plays, LAW & ORDER fans, and the odd celebrity. Jackee ("SISTER SISTER," "THE WOMEN OF BREWSTER PLACE") walked into the theater just in front of us.

The part of Doc, so memorably done by Lancaster in the movie, came off quite differently in the performance of Alan Rosenberg, who you may remember as Cybill Sheppard's comic ex-husband in her eponymous sit com of some years ago. Where Lancaster was so tightly wound you worried that he might explode in mid-scene, Rosenberg seemed a bit more like Doc himself would probably have seemed -- a beat-down man trying to live on after the complete dissolution of his ambitions.

But I thought Merkerson's approach to the role of Lola was the most intriguing. There was absolutely no mistaking her for Booth, and yet there were moments when the two performances clearly overlapped. What Merkerson had done was identify the elements of bearing and intonation that belonged to the character herself, so that the continuity between Booth's and Merkerson's interpretations was the continuity of the play itself.
While the language and sets were patently of their era (the play dates to the 1950 Broadway season), the play has an odd way of speaking to our moment despite its dated situations and the occasional references to "spooning" and such. The color-blind casting also made for an unspoken tension. In the time of the play, Doc and Lola's interracial marriage would have been far more of an issue than either Doc's alcoholism or the suggestions of their boarder's sexual dalliances. The script is followed to the letter, though, so that the issue of race is one that ignites within the minds of the audience rather than in the action on stage.
It proved a fine performance and the run of the revival has been extended for an additional week. I confess that I haven't been to the theater in years, finding most plays both badly written and badly done. Maybe I should get out more -- I should certainly see more plays --

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