Smile Politely

Little dialogue makes for big emotions

In the silence of the Station Theatre, the audience senses the pain felt deeply by the main characters of Come Back, Little Sheba. Watching Lola call out for her favorite little puppy is heart-wrenching as she gazes into the distance with a look that is anything but empty. This play is all about invoking deep emotions with very little dialogue. (Little, that is, unless you count the constant chatter of Lola.) There’s an emptiness to these characters that is sure to leave the audience feeling haunted and melancholic.

Come Back, Little Sheba is set in the ‘50s in an old, run-down house that Lola (Deb Richardson) and Doc (Lincoln Machula, pictured above with Richardson) share with a beautiful girl named Marie as a boarding house. Doc is a recovering alcoholic with an unambitious, doting wife who is constantly housebound. The play takes a turn when Doc realizes that Marie is seeing two boys at once, Turk (Maxwell James Tomaszewski) and Bruce (Mark E. Fox).

The play, written by William Inge, is often considered a tricky period piece and is, for that reason, often avoided by directors. But if it’s done correctly, the show can still apply to a modern audience. In this instance, I think director Tom Mitchell and his Station cast did a great job with a very dated script. It isn’t an easy piece to pull off, but it’s evident that there was a lot of hard work involved in this particular production.

The stage design by Molly Iten was spot-on and the costumes by Stephanie Swearingen (with assistance from Ms. Richardson) were period-appropriate and obviously well thought-out. I especially loved the pink dress and glitzy headband that Marie (Sarah Heier, pictured left) pulled off during the dinner scene. It was a strange transition from her bright-colored floral outfit to this uptight formal attire, but I think that it was fitting for the character. She had to be two different kinds of girls to impress these two men in her life, and the costumes helped get that point across to the audience.

I will confess that I didn’t fully accept Machula as Doc until the moment he was drunkenly chasing Lola around the house with a hatchet. He’s obviously a fine actor, but the entire play I sat in my chair waiting for him to reach that bubbling point. You could see the eruption building, the silent haunt behind his (intentionally) empty, expressionless face. The instant that Machula finally broke was the moment I really appreciated him as this character, and I think that he brought something unique to the role and really made it his own.

The three-way love triangle between Marie, Turk, and Bruce should at least be mentioned, though it is somewhat less than compelling on stage. Heier plays Marie well, but there is something very modern about hermanner that never quite gels with the period of the play. She never struck me as a girl from the ‘50s, but rather seemed like a contemporary young woman. It felt kind of strange when Heier used slang that a teenage girl from that time period would use. I think it may have been difficult for her to really embrace the retro, artistic but fierce quality that Marie needed for her to excel in it. That being said, I think that Heier and Tomaszewski (pictured right) also had a little bit of a problem with their chemistry on stage. It just felt a bit awkward and stiff, whereas in moments like their argument about communication, it would have been nice to see a better dynamic. And there was no chemistry whatsoever between Heier and Fox, but I think this was supposed to be evident and actually worked for the story.

On the night that I attended, there was a slight malfunction with a sound effect in a moment when Lola turns on the radio. Instead of music blaring from the speakers, the audience is met with the sound of a doorbell. Machula, as Doc, showed some truly outstanding improvisational ability with his quip, “Well, it’s never done that before.” A great moment that makes you appreciate live theatre in experienced hands.

I definitely cannot forget to mention how outstanding Richardson was as Lola. I was constantly reminded, as I watched her, of the mesmerizing Shirley Booth in the film adaption. There were many times that I could swear I was watching Booth on stage, like in that instant when she’s explaining to Doc about her dream of Little Sheba or when she’s calling her mother after Doc’s relapse into alcoholism and asking to come back home. None of this is to say that Richardson (pictured left) was simply recycling Booth’s performance in the film. Richardson gave the character a life of her own. When she’s constantly annoying everyone with her babbling and repetitive stories, you feel a tingle run up your spine as she idealizes how great her past was. She’s a hopeless dreamer who has no idea how to live in her bleak present.

It’s clear that Richardson and Machula have worked together as a couple in productions before. They know how to interact with each other on a level that many actors and actresses could never achieve. The timing between their lines is perfect, but it’s also in the emotions they can express without saying a word. When they hug each other and look so deep in love at the end of the play, it really gives the audience optimism that maybe this dysfunctional couple can make it work after all.

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Photos by Wes Pundt.

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