PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Come Back, Little Sheba — The Tale of the Chiropractor's Wife

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Come Back, Little Sheba — The Tale of the Chiropractor's Wife
S. Epatha Merkerson ("and don't call me Shirley") braved Broadway Jan. 24 in the role that made Shirley Booth a Tony winner, an Oscar winner and a theatre icon — Lola, that fat, frumpy housefrau in ratty house slippers who dominates Come Back, Little Sheba.

After the play, Merkerson's footwear improved immeasurably. She planted herself on Planet Hollywood in some tall, kick-ass boots by Kenneth Cole, who, she understated, did not shoe her for the show. No, that was Jennifer von Mayrhauser, who opted to outfit her in dirtwater-gray slipovers for three-quarters of the show. There's a party scene where she dons some clunky white clod-hoppers, but mostly she paddles a gray streak.

The shoes made some social sense to the actress: "The first pair are kinda practical since she's in the house all day. The second pair, because I'm expecting company, is cuter."

William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba comes from an era of well-crafted plays, and this lovingly done Manhattan Theatre Club (at the Biltmore) recreation is making its first Broadway comeback since the original bowed Feb. 15, 1950. From all accounts, Booth seemed to find enough to go on from Inge to fill the stage with legendary lyricism — "I have never seen an audience moved to such vibrant tears," said one eyewitness (Louis Botto in the current Playbill). After, she dropped by Sardi's for a bite, only to find her opening-night audience. They stood up as one and applauded again. The tradition of the "Sardi's entrance" was born.

Meanwhile, back at Planet Hollywood, Merkerson was maintaining the hard-edged, no-nonsense stance we know her for from 15 years of police-bossing on TV's "Law & Order." In contrast, the emotionally abused and battered Lola is — well, on another planet. The fact that she took on the Booth legend is further sign of her strength and fearlessness as an actress.

This is a Lola who never got what she wanted, or, if she did, she lost it: like her figure; like her long-missing dog, Little Sheba; like her dreams of happily-ever-aftering with Doc, the medical student who impregnated her, dutifully wed her and stayed married to her after the baby was lost, dashing his dreams as well, turning him into a chiropractor. She chews on the bone of her pathetic past constantly, relaying this miserable litany to anyone who crosses (or comes near) her path — the postman (Lyle Kanouse), the milkman (Matthew J. Williamson), the sex-charged college coquette who rents a room from her (Zoe Kazan), even the neighbor she suspects has poisoned Little Sheba (Brenda Wehle).

Doc (Kevin Anderson), a gingerly recovering alcoholic who has also settled for less in life and has heard her mindless prattle before in its many gradations, struggles quietly — too quietly — to keep a lid on his raging resentment and the bottle of booze in the cupboard.

Merkerson's small-screen image of a stainless-steel authority figure is what compelled her to make her daring leap into Lolaland. "I'm usually cast as very strong women, so this has been quite a challenge for me," she readily admitted. "I've been working really hard to make the character seem as real as possible and to go on this journey with her."

Director Michael Pressman is the one who first suggested she could play the other side of the coin, during one of the breaks when he was filming a "Law & Order" episode, and he put together a Los Angeles toe-dipping for her. She, however, wasn't certain she could pull it off at first, it being such an extreme reversal of her usual agenda. "Luckily I hadn't seen the movie in a while, so I read the play with a certain freshness. 'Would I be able to do it and not actually have, like, a meltdown when I got out to L.A.?' I wondered. 'Maybe I've taken on more than I can do.' It's been a journey of discovery."

The racially mixed casting was another hurdle for Merkerson. An African-American Lola can be viewed two ways — with color-blind indifference or something that gives stronger underpinnings to the play. It implies a rough row that mixed-marrieds hoed in the '50s.

Anderson thinks the casting strengthens the plot. "Epatha and I have talked about this," he said. "Like what did they do? Even in the '50s, she was saying, we wouldn't even have been allowed into hospitals in the Midwest, let alone the South. So what did they do? Did they get an abortion? Did the baby just die? Since we couldn't have gone to a hospital, we might have gone to some backstreet sort of place. We talked about how responsible was Doc in the baby's death. Was he part of it, or did he let it happen? Did he know something was going on and ignored it? The casting fortifies the story and lets the audience figure it out."

His emotionally crippled chiropractor has a loud interior life, something Inge seems to have composed for a dog whistle. "That was the hardest part to play because, unlike Tennessee Williams, Inge doesn't give you the words to work with," said Anderson, who has done well with Williams' Orpheus Descending and Summer and Smoke in New York.

"With Tennessee — say you're having an off-night and you have this big passage coming up — his language is so poetic that, as long as you grasp it and just start to speak it, it will take you in. Inge is totally Midwest. He's so spare. The language doesn't provide you with a character as Tennessee and Shakespeare do. The first couple of weeks are so frustrating because I'm not that guy yet. I'm the kind of actor who just continues to keep working, going deeper. There's all this internal stuff that you haven't found and you've been in previews for three weeks. You feel like the biggest phony until it all finally clicks in."

Kazan is the object of Doc's steamier repressions, a condition exacerbated by the parade of beaus entering and leaving her rented room — now where is that bottle? The actress enjoyed the sexy perkiness of the part and has been developing it Off-Broadway (via the fairly aggressive young wantons that she played in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 100 Saints You Should Know and Things We Want). It has taken her these three baby steps to get to Broadway where her grandfather, director Elia Kazan, toiled with such distinction.

Her head wasn't noticeably swelling for her brand-new status as a Broadway actress. "It feels the same as normal," she said, taking her emotional temperature, "except I've been in Planet Hollywood too long." She took the hand of her date and moved for the exit.

The date was almost recognizable by his silence, standing self-effacingly beside Kaman: Paul Dano, the mostly mute teenager in "Little Mary Sunshine." He speaks up quite a bit in his new film, playing Daniel Day-Lewis' evangelical adversary in "There Will Be Blood." He recently co-starred with Kazan in Things We Want, along with Peter Dinklage (who showed up in her support camp with his director-wife Erica Schmidt).

The postman, the milkman and the neighbor — Kanouse, Williamson and Wehle — were all imported from the L.A. production to make their Broadway debut, and all took it big.

"It's unbelievable," said Williamson, the muscular milkman (one previewing wag suggested they retitle the show The Milkman Cometh). "This is one of those things that, no matter what happens — even if we closed the show tonight — nobody can ever take that away from me. I'm a Broadway actor, and it feels incredible. My mom's here. This is the first time she's seen the show. She came all the way from Sweden to see it. That's where my mom lives now. I'm actually from the Midwest, from Missouri."

Williamson, who just turned 35 a few weeks ago, displays a young man's physique which, like the character he plays, wasn't casually arrived it. There's a sexual undercurrent to his scenes with Merkerson. "I don't really think about the sexual part of it too much," Williamson insisted. "As a character, I'm into 'I've got places to be and milk to deliver and I don't want to go into this strange lady's house and waste time.' But when she does start to be nice to me, she just happens to touch a nerve that my character's really into — which is fitness. As soon as she touches that nerve, she's got a friend. Then we're on the same page, and our relationship sorta grows from there. Epatha's a really wonderful actress to share the stage with. It's a privilege. The whole thing's a privilege."

Brian J. Smith is also in the beefcake race as Kazan's lover, Turk (young, young, young, young Turk). He just jumped out of Juilliard in May and, like quite a few Julliard seniors, caught the trapeze bar to Broadway. "This is a dream come true. I'm having a great time."

Tracie Thoms, of the film version of "Rent," also a Juilliard grad, rushed up to him to introduce herself. "I was in tears for you at the end," she exclaimed, then exited with, "Enjoy your moment."

William Inge's niece, Jean Inge, admitted she was very touched by this production and found it superior to one done in L.A. "I was moved in several spots in that play because some of it reminded me so much of Grandmother Inge — just some of her actions and the way she talked, her moods. [Inge's mother was not married to an alcoholic]. That could have been Bill himself because he was an alcoholic, and that could have been him." A bitterly cold night meant there was not a lot of lollygagging in the lobby. People rushed to their seats, and the curtain went up on time. There was a nice turn-out of celebrity cheerleaders for the show's creators and performers, and the applause was generous.

Her Blondeness, Michelle Pfeiffer, and her TV-titan hubby, David E. Kelly, made their high-speed "California entrance," hard-charging and ignoring the pleas of paparazzi for pictures. They were there for Pressman who helmed a screen adaptation that Kelly wrote for his wife, "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday."

Her Dreadlockness, Whoopi Goldberg, was there in a gaggle of glory, supporting Merkerson and the color-blind barrier she broke through. (It may be remembered that Goldberg wanted the role of the homeless alkie in "Ironweed" that went to Meryl Streep.)

Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who, like Merkerson, has been Tony-nominated for August Wilson, was also there for her. Upcoming projects on his plate: "I'm doing a play at New York Theatre Workshop, Naomi Wallace's Things of Dry Hours, in June — and then I am going to direct the first play in the Negro Ensemble Company season at Signature."

Just in from her second week of rehearsing In the Heights (opening in March at the Richard Rodgers), Priscilla Lopez was in a particularly jubilant mood. "They gave me a new song — it's called 'Enough,'" said the gal who introduced "Nothing" in A Chorus Line.

Playwright Adam Bock said he, too, had a spring opening — The Drunken City at Playwrights Horizons. Barrett Foa and Maria Dizzia star. Jayne Houdyshell, who recently served Bock superbly as The Receptionist at MTC, has gone back to playing Midwestern Mom (a la the one in Well, her Tony-nominated Broadway-arrival vehicle); this time she's doing it up at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse in an evening of four short Paul Rudnick plays — The New Century, with Linda Lavin and Peter Bartlett.

Valerie Harper is in a media mix these days, and theatre is not included: "I got a series," she whispered. "I can't speak about it until the writers' strike is over." She was play-going with David Steiner and his wife, Sylvia. They have a state of the art movie studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and co-produced with Harper's husband, Tony Cacciotti, the movie version of the play Harper took on tour, Golda's Balcony. She is planning to screen it and talk-back it in various cities to mark the 60th anniversary of Israel.

Doubt Tony-winner Adriane Lenox is another betwixt and between because of the strike. "I have a recurring role on 'Lipstick Jungle,'" she said. "That starts up on NBC Thursday nights at 10 PM on Feb. 7. That's also the night I'm doing a little workshop I've been working on for three weeks. It's called Langston in Harlem. The Public Theater is interested in seeing what it looks like so we'll do a presentation there on Feb. 7-8."

Other first-nighters: Geoffrey Holder and Carmen De Lavallade, Bill Kux, directors Dan Sullivan and Walter Bobbie, Donna Murphy and Sean Elliott, Fran Liebowitz, George Maksian, Kate Clinton with The 39 Steps and Stomp producer Harriet Leve, Jamie de Roy, Hunt Slocum, Caroline McCormick, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marian Seldes, Kate Mulgrew, Denis O'Hare, Patrice O'Neal, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Rene Fris of "Sheer Genius," Sherri Shepherd of "The View," Sabine Singh, Susan Birkenhead and, representing the "Law & Order" faction, Sam Waterson.

The cast of <i>Come Back, Little Sheba</i> takes its opening night bows.
The cast of Come Back, Little Sheba takes its opening night bows. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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