The struggle with addictions of all sorts is no stranger to the theatre. Along with sex and violence (frequently fueling both), it has inspired playwrights to explore inner demons (imagined or real), directors to read deep into the often deliberately vague narrative tea leaves and challenged actors to convincingly sink into the depths of misery and despair. Like the Roman gladiators fighting beasts (animal and human) to the death for the entertainment of the privileged and their admirers, today’s audiences have not lost their appetite for witnessing the seemingly unstoppable destruction of others.
In the Shaw Festival’s inaugural production of William Inge’s 1950 chronicle of lost lives and shattered dreams, it’s not until the second act that the expertly conceived and crafted text jumps off the page and sears unforgettably into consciousness. The fact that the final line of Act I (“Little Sheba…Come back…Come back, Little Sheba, Come back.”) drew a laugh from a significant number of the opening night patrons only underscored a miscalculation in just how to set the table for the desperate events which unfold after intermission.
The key to everything may well be found in Inge’s description of his imaginary setting: “It is the downstairs of an old house in one of those semi-respectable neighbourhoods in a Midwestern city.” In Jackie Maxwell’s vision, the onus is placed squarely on the shoulders of AA success story (almost one year “dry”), Doc Delaney (Ric Reid) and his gone-to-seed wife, Lola (Corrine Koslo). As the rest of the cast members join the drama, there is more a feeling of gee-shucks TV sitcoms than a growing cauldron fed by an epidemic of deceit and dereliction. Curiously—but not surprisingly given the necessarily collaborative nature of direction and design—Christina Poddubiuk’s fully detailed set and Bonnie Beecher’s ever-effective lighting create an opening tableau of a house in disarray but not the cheap and soiled living room/kitchen conjured up by the writer’s description. Consequently, the all-important shift for Lola to perform a miracle of “spring cleaning” (not for her husband but rather their tenant’s second lover in two nights: Andrew Bunker smartly doing the honours as Bruce) fails to produce the stark contrast required to make Inge’s point just as effective visually as through his words.
Renting the converted dining room (all the better to secure welcome additional income during Doc’s lengthy “sickness”), Marie spends her days studying art (most particularly male life drawing) and biology and her nights “spooning” with the buff model then conducting very personal biological experiments together. She has no qualms about sleeping with the “not the marrying kind” even as her vrai intended (Bruce) is out of town securing their future. In this catalytic role (Doc has a severe case of unrequited love for the belle of them all) Julia Course is appropriately boisterous and coy, yet there’s never an iota of steely, selfish subtext that would deliciously add an important layer both to her promiscuity and Doc’s pathetic devotion. Similarly, Turk, the object of her lust and sketch pad, looks and acts more like Wally (Leave it to Beaver) than the panties savvy sex machine who is always happy to hurl his javelin and let it land where it may—so long as it stays erect. Kevin McGarry does his best and all that he’s asked, but the pivotal moment when he’s sneaking away from Marie’s bed and stumbles into Doc flashes past more like a bedroom comedy than “OMG, I could have been you" or "Did Lola also have a'Turk' in her life? ” (Doc is assured on several occasions that his bride never “dated” another man: their lost child—resulting in sudden marriage—could have been no one else’s…
Next door neighbour (German background and mother of seven: a constant slap in the face to the barren Lola) makes a fine transition from higher-than-you to bosom buddy after viewing the miracle of the cleaned up dump. Sharry Flett makes for an engaging foil, yet the interaction between the matriarchs, once again, is too pastel-by-half. And what did her husband do in the war…?
And so it falls to the Delaneys to do the heavy lifting both in the finely calculated set-up and the emotional payoffs to come. Corrine Koslo brings a quiet desperation to Lola that works best from the moment she realizes the see-I-can-withstand-temptation unopened whisky bottle has vanished just as surely as Sheba (the long-lost dog) will never again answer her call. In the first-half scenes, her flirtations with anyone but Doc (Lorne Kennedy’s stoic, then kind Postman; James Pendarves’ touch-my-body-building muscles—an ounce of lavender wouldn’t be out of place here—Milkman) and voyeuristic inclination (an addiction of her own) lack the smouldering desire that briefly informs the morning break, getting damp with erotic memories while listening to Taboo on the radio. More complexity sooner would bring even greater depth to the final pages.
Ric Reid’s ability to portray dark, monstrous, characters (cross-reference below) is well known. Characteristically, he paces himself: beginning sotto voce, revealing bits and pieces knowing full well that too much, too soon will spoil the arc and flow of his demise. With more primary colours around him in the first two scenes, his metamorphosis would be even more effective. Still, Reid’s incredibly expressive visage spoke silent volumes of love and despair while savouring Schubert’s Ave Maria; wringing his hands silently together deftly reinforced the growing turmoil fed by—he wants to believe—Marie’s spurning him for disgusting opportunist (another Sheba who ignores his call).
All of that said, when Reid returns home as drunk and truculent as ever before, the room—on either side of the footlights—is collectively riveted to this awful truth and anguish. The howls of booze-stoked fear when fellow AA supporters offer him the choice of jail or hospital (“Stop them. That’s where they take the crazy people.”) caused a collective chill even as everyone witnessed Reid’s complete mastery of his art. On the strength of that moment alone, this is a performance that must be seen by anyone who has loved, lost then slipped into the “safer” realm of denial. JWR