Huntington Mounts Powerful, Painful ‘Come Back Little Sheba’ (5 Stars)

*Come Back, Little Sheba – Written by William Inge; Directed by David Cromer; Set Design by Stephen Dobay. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, 527 Tremont Street, Boston through May 2*

The Huntington Theatre’s offerings for the 2014-2015 season have featured a number of works (*Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Awake And Sing!, Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike*) that have focused on families whose fundamental flaws are exposed when events (real or imagined) bring them to a potential breaking point. Their current production, *Come Back, Little Sheba*, continues in this vein and the results are breathtaking. Staged at the cozy Roberts Center at the Boston Center for the Arts (the same theater where director David Cromer mounted his brilliant version of *Our Town*) rather than the much larger venue on Huntington Ave. where the aforementioned plays were presented, the play packs such an enormous emotional wallop that it feels bigger than all of its predecessors.

When we first meet Doc, the recovering alcoholic chiropractor, he appears sweet and thoughtful as he attends to the needs of both his housework-averse wife and their boarder Marie, an attractive art student. But it’s not long before we begin to feel the tension simmering just beneath the surface that runs so contrary to the blissful dialogue. When wife Lola asks Doc if he’s said his prayer before going off to work, you know it’s more than just checking with him to make sure he’s completed an empty ritual, it’s more closely akin to making sure he’s recited an incantation to ward off evil. And when Doc says the Serenity Prayer with such emphatic conviction, you know that he’s doing so from a position of well-deserved fear. Although a well-written drama, it nearly has the feel of a slasher movie where you absolutely know that something is going to horribly wrong at some point.

Doc is an alcoholic alright, but his character (for the most part anyway) is more about the crazy that lies beneath when he’s not drinking. His attitude towards women – dividing them into good and bad based on their sexual behavior – has little grey area, and while it’s not much different than many of the men of the 50’s, it has an extra layer of creepy obsessiveness to it. When Marie tells Lola that “Doc’s so nice”, you suspect that his niceness has a not-so-deeply suppressed motive.

Lola, who almost appears dimwitted until we learn how much of that is the result of living with Doc’s drinking and harsh judgement, lives in the past by avoiding the present. The house is a complete mess, and when she clicks on the radio to listen to her programs (such as the campy “Taboo”), you know she’s just checking out of reality for a while. She is obsessed with the idea that her lost dog, Little Sheba, is coming home and calls to him every night from the porch, while groundlessly suspecting that the dog may have been poisoned by her Russian neighbor, Mrs. Kaufman. She also lives her life vicariously through Marie, spying on her and her hunky boyfriend during their daily make-out sessions in the living room. And she desperately seeks the attention of anyone whom she can entrap into a conversation, including the postman and the bodybuilding milkman. Doc, on the other hand, wants to forget the past, and we soon see why when he relives it some of its worst moments later on.

This is a brilliantly staged piece, beginning with the meticulously detailed set by Stephen Dobay, who nails the look and feel of 1950 American suburbia right down to the Maxwell House coffee can. As Lola, Adrianne Krstansky is perfectly pathetic, and gives a performance without a trace of self-consciousness, no easy trick when playing someone so damaged. Derek Hasenstab gives a terrific performance as Doc, and is equally convincing when he’s trying to keep the lid on his repressed rage as when the lid finally blows off. Marie Polizzano brings a lustful innocence to her role, and the supporting players are top notch as well, especially Maureen Keller as Mrs. Kaufman. Although this can be painful to watch at times, it’s a great take. Don’t miss it.

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