Fringe Festivals are a natural home to theatrical innovators and outsiders; original, often devised and genre-defying work largely prevails. But now and then, we find a tantalizing cross-pollination when an imaginatively Fringe-y aesthetic is brought to bear on older, more familiar plays and playwrights.
This year, two of Philly’s boldest directors—Tina Brock of Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium and Lane Savadove of EgoPo Classic Theater—do precisely that with, respectively, William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba and Tennessee Williams’ And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens.
On one hand, you could hardly get more canonical than Inge and Williams, two of the most recognized and produced playwrights who came to prominence during the glorious mid-century rise of the American playwright on Broadway.
Yet for all of their fame, there’s a Fringe-y aspect here, too.
Williams enjoyed fabulous successes, but also suffered through abject failures. His poetic, sardonic, and frankly gay voice wasn’t an easy fit for the American temperament that, say, Arthur Miller’s was. After the early 1960s, Williams’ work—increasingly looser, more obliquely symbolist, and yes, gayer, was excoriated by the same critics and audiences who adored his earlier plays.
Similarly, Inge—who had two major Broadway hits in the 1950s, as well as a prominent career as a screenwriter—died by suicide at age 60, having seen his once-bright career slowly but inexorably dim.
In fact, it’s highly appropriate to find these writers and their plays given a home in Philly Fringe. Happily, in both cases considered here, the layering of Fringe aesthetics on established writers is fascinating and sometimes revelatory.
Let’s first take on Inge.
There are those who might consider Come Back, Little Sheba—a study of a troubled marriage set in a kind of universalized postwar suburbia—to be a museum piece. Here, it is literally so at the Bethany Mission Gallery, a superb collection of American artifacts and art. The overlay hits you from the start: above the play’s set—a working kitchen in a modest but comfortable home—a circus banner advertises the world’s fattest man.
For other directors, the two elements together would be impossible to reconcile. But Brock, who also plays the principal role of Lola, the long-suffering wife, is in pursuit of surprising, ironic, impish connections. And in Come Back, Little Sheba—ostensibly one of the most sincere and literal of American dramas—she finds a darkly truthful connection. Deep inside every seemingly normal family group, this production seems to imply, isn’t there something almost freakish?
The net effect here is to throw the world of Sheba, which today could easily seem cloyingly sentimental, into a much harsher light. It doesn’t always work. But the best moments of the production are extraordinary.
What suddenly comes into sharp focus is how Inge documents the failure of American optimism. I cringed at the notion that vitamins would save Doc (sensationally played here by John Zak), the sad-sack middle-aged husband, whose alcoholism tanked his dreams of going to medical school. Or the notion that body-building could transform the town milkman into an object of desire. And don’t even get me started on the suggestion that eggs for breakfast can fix almost anything.
There’s also the surprise of a harder-edged Lola, capable of innocent or perhaps even deliberate cruelty. This was not at all a part of Shirley Booth’s career-defining creator performance, where every moment was heartbreakingly guileless—but it’s a startling and very effective feature of Brock’s vibrant portrayal.
Most revelatory to me is the sense of voyeurism that emerges as a central theme. Lola and Doc have opened their home to a paying boarder, Marie, a local college girl studying art. Marie and her two suitors—hunky athlete Turk, who poses for her, and stable but dull Bruce—become a kind of reflector onto which Lola and Doc project their memories, and their often distorted dreams. It’s a disquieting mix of compassion, desire, and resentment—and we as an audience are similarly and problematically inculcated in their world.
As I say, not everything works. But this powerful reappraisal of Come Back, Little Shebawill live on in your memory long after the lights go up. Think you know William Inge? Think again.
Come Back, Little Sheba has performances through September 22. For more information and to buy tickets, visit the Theatre Philadelphia website.