Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Shaw's "Come Back Little Sheba" - Reid and Koslo at the top of their game!

Ric Reid as Doc Delaney and Corrine Koslo as Lola Delaney in Come Back, Little Sheba. Photo by David Cooper

Jackie Maxwell openly admires playwright William Inge, so when she became Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival in November, 2002, it was natural that her first directing credit was the celebrated production of Picnic in 2001. Inge enjoyed a string of Broadway hits through the 1950s including Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), Picnic (1953), Bus Stop (1955) and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957). Picnic won a Pulitzer Prize, and his first screenplay, Splendor in the Grass, won him an Oscar.

Come Back, Little Sheba Maxwell notes that Inge came into prominence at the same time as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, two dramatic heavyweights whose rising stars eventually eclipsed his. She expresses hope that "our ongoing exploration of his beautiful, sensitive plays will do just a tiny bit to right that wrong." The play in question this season at Niagara on the Lake's Royal George is Come Back, Little Sheba which launched Inge's career, and it's well worth watching, particularly on the strength of incredibly powerful performances by Corrine Koslo as Lola and Ric Reid as Doc.

Lola was the prototypical high school hot babe, sought out by all the lusty, testosterone-laced young males. Surprisingly, she chose the shy "Doc" and got "knocked up" as we used to say. She was forced to marry much too young at eighteen, (as well as Doc) not an uncommon situation for sexually active teens in the unforgiving 50s-60s. Thus, twenty years later, you guessed it; she and her hubby don't quite enjoy the romantic, fulfilled life that they had hoped for in their symbolically cluttered, Midwestern home. In fact, an ominous, heavy cloud of disillusionment and anxiety blankets the entire home. When they take in the nubile young female boarder, Marie (Julia Course), who enjoys a dalliance in her bedroom with young football and track star, Turk (Kevin McGarry), there is an emotional explosion as they confront the painful past and try to determine their future.

Lola is on a mission. She perpetually thinks, dreams, and talks to anyone who will listen to her about her missing dog, Sheba. Sheba, of course, is much more than a dog. Lola's tolerant husband answers each question about the dog...over and over again. After he leaves for work and Marie has left for school, Lola is alone and her loneliness is palpable as she chronically tries to engage in brief interactions with anyone - the mailman (Lorne Kennedy), the milkman, (James Pendarves) and finally her neighbour, Mrs. Coffman, (Sharry Flett) to talk about Sheba. "You should get busy and forget her. You should get busy, Mrs. Delaney," cautions the neighbour.

Marie enjoys a sexual freedom that intrigues Lola but assails Doc, who has idealized her, and she becomes the focus of attention for both Lola and Doc. Lola recounts her meeting with Doc to Marie. Pregnant, they marry and Doc's hopes to become a doctor are truncated. (He settles for being a chiropractor.) Marie's relationship with the emboldened jock, Turk, intrigues and disturbs them both. She tells Lola that her accommodating boyfriend back home, Bruce, (Andrew Bunker) knows about Turk, but both have agreed that neither need be lonely while they're apart. The illicit sex sends Doc over the top. He is a recovering alcoholic. Their exquisitely painful Long Day's Journey Into Night causes them to reflect upon their own past, their current relationship and the many disappointments and compromises they had to make, leading to an angst-ridden, inevitable confrontation.

Julia Course as Marie and Kevin McGarry as Turk in Come Back, Little Sheba. Photo by David Cooper   Julia Course   Ric Reid   Sharry Flett as Mrs. Coffman and Corrine Koslo as Lola Delaney in Come Back, Little Sheba. Photo by David Cooper   Corrine Koslo

Reid and Koslo are remarkable from beginning to end, in tandem turning in one of the strongest performances you will ever get to see at Shaw. Each nuance from facial expression to posture to inflection of voice, every deliberate pause is loaded with raw intensity. Christina Poddubiuk's effective see-through set of kitchen and living room provides nowhere to hide for these two conflicted souls, and the audience notices a bottle of rye sitting ominously in a cupboard, waiting to cause total chaos. Koslo plays a simple woman, a constantly chattering type (driving others away) who tends to keep moving, fidgeting and fussing over this and that, while Reid often assumes catatonic proportions as early on when he nostalgically listens to Ave Maria on the radio in a trance-like state, and every Catholic in the audience knows that a meltdown is imminent.

The meltdown is genuinely frightening on stage as Reid's dormant anger erupts, and he grabs an axe to dispatch Koslo, his slovenly anchor. Inge was often characterized as the playwright who dramatized the "plain, sometimes desperate lives" in the heartland of America. I was not surprised to read in the program notes that after a string of successes and then a few artistic bombs, Inge, an alcoholic, asphyxiated himself inside his garage. In the Royal George Theatre, you can smell the gas!

In the final scene, Koslo unveils a dream she experienced that includes most of the characters, including the long lost Sheba, a tidy,
masterful ending by a playwright tortured by his own nasty demons.

Zachary Florence's original music featuring a melancholic jazz saxophone riff is perfect for the piece. You can visualize junkies shooting heroin into their arms to help make it through the day. The strength of Shaw's cast is demonstrated by the quality of actors playing minor roles, for example, Lorne Kennedy's postman, Graeme Somerville's Ed Anderson (Doc's 12-step sponsor) and Sharry Flett's Mrs. Coffman. McGarry and Course are depicted as young foils for Reid and Koslo, but unfortunately are most often one-dimensional, thus limiting their affect.

Directed by Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell, the production runs to Oct. 19. I highly recommend it!

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