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Theater review: A poignant, potent 'Come Back, Little Sheba'

Playwright William Inge was part and parcel of the 1950s, a time of scenery-chomping melodrama in the American theater zeitgeist. If not delicately interpreted, his plays can seem positively sappy by modern standards.

Fortunately, the current revival of Inge’s 1950 drama “Come Back, Little Sheba” at A Noise Within largely steers clear of blatancy, thanks to the skillful co-direction of Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott. When the characters do veer into apparent superficiality, it’s very much to a poignant and devastating point.

The action, which transpires on Stephen Gifford's picturesquely squalid set, revolves around Doc (Geoff Elliott), a chiropractor who was forced to give up his dreams of being a medical doctor when his girlfriend, Lola (Deborah Strang), became pregnant. The baby died, and Lola couldn’t have other children -- just one of many wrenching blows for the now-middle-age couple. A violent alcoholic, Doc has been sober almost a year. But his obsession with Marie (Lili Fuller), a college student boarding in his home, eventually sends him off the wagon in a harrowing scene that may change the course of his marriage.

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Like Shirley Booth’s famous portrayal in the role, Strang’s Lola can be gratingly arch, at least at first. Yet Lola's irritating coquetry is a valiant hedge against terror, and Strang subtly reveals Lola's underlying strain as she picks her way across the thin ice of her husband's precarious sobriety. As for Elliott, he not only plays a spectacular drunk but also brings warmth and humanity to a potentially dour role. His Doc may be bitterly disappointed, but his love for Lola is real -- the saving grace of an otherwise wasted life.

Consummate pros who have worked together in the past, Strang and Elliott take their collaboration to new heights in this production. Their portrayals lend welcome emotional depths to Inge’s surprisingly resilient American classic.

A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Runs in repertory. Ends May 17. $34 and up. (626) 356-3100 Ext. 1. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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