THEATER REVIEW : Dysfunctional ‘50s : William Inge’s ‘Come Back, Little Sheba’ illuminated co- dependency decades before the concept was invented.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Ray Loynd writes regularly about theater for The Times</i>

Happily, director Allison Bergman doesn’t embalm William Inge’s 1950 drama, “Come Back, Little Sheba,” as if it were an heirloom to be preserved under glass.

Rather, the production at Actors Forum Theatre catches the terror in the play about an alcoholic husband and his disheveled, garrulous wife. The actors and their characters speak to us not from the past but from today.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 11, 1993 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 11, 1993 Valley Edition Valley Life Page 10 Zones Desk 2 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Incorrect identification--Some of the production staff for the play “Come Back, Little Sheba” were incorrectly identified in a review in the May 28 Valley Life section. Jim Barbaley is the set designer, John J. Grant is the lighting designer and Jerry Sider is the sound designer for the play, which is being staged at Actors Forum Theatre in Studio City.

When burnt-out husband Doc (Shawn Michaels) comes sneaking home through the kitchen screen door falling-over drunk after a year on the wagon and waving a hatchet at his frumpy wife Lola (Audrey Marlyn), there is not a titter or giggle in the house. This scene, the play’s most powerful, is frightening and shattering, enough to make you flinch.


Michaels’ wretched drunk leaves a lasting, convincing portrayal of what it’s like to live with an ugly boozer.

When the wife calls two sponsors from Alcoholics Anonymous to haul her husband off to a clinic, the action marks one of the theater’s first dramatizations of AA. The organization was little known to the public in 1950, but not unknown to Inge, who was an alcoholic.

It’s fitting that the show is dedicated to the memory of Actors Forum board member Daniel Mann, who directed the Broadway premiere of “Come Back, Little Sheba” and also the 1952 movie version with Oscar-winner Shirley Booth, Burt Lancaster and Terry Moore.

“Little Sheba” is the beloved family dog that’s run away. Lola periodically yells “Come back” from her front porch--a metaphor for the couple’s lost youth and withered dreams. As the paralyzed and doomed pair who once blossomed as lovers, Michaels and Marlyn perfectly mirror their vanished years. Miserable people married much too long, they curiously empower one another through a sickening co-dependency.

Marlyn’s insecure, immature Lola, of course, would propel any husband to the brink. She talks every visitor to death, whether it’s the postman (Louis Shapiro), the milkman (Kyle Kelly), a messenger (Byron Brummer) or the nosy neighbor with the Swedish accent (Ingrid Rameau).

The momentary spark in Doc and Lola’s lives is their bright, pretty boarder, Marie (a rather bland Jennifer Mahoney), a co-ed recklessly dating two men (Joseph Taylor as a brash, athletic hunk and Danny Lippin as her sweet, prospering fiance).


More significantly, Marie is also the sexual fantasy of husband Doc, who can’t help but bury his face in her white scarf when no one’s looking.

Productions frequently fail to make clear why Doc treats Marie like a daughter and, enraged over her secret sex life, allows Marie’s fling to drive him to the bottle hidden on a shelf above the fridge. But motivation is one of the strengths of this production, always carefully calibrated.

Illuminating the tone is the deliberately yucky, super-frayed, realistic interior set design by Jerry Sider, whose lighting design, too, catches the sad spring mornings of this dysfunctional family before the phrase was ever coined.


* What: “Come Back, Little Sheba.”

* Location: Actors Forum Theatre, 3365 1/2 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Studio City.

* Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays through June 20.

* Price: $10.

* Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

* Call: (213) 466-1767.