When Come Back, Little Sheba opened on Broadway in 1950, critics hailed its author, William Inge, as an authentic voice of the plain people west of the Mississippi. He burnished his reputation for passionate simplicity with Picnic (winner of a 1953 Pulitzer Prize), Bus Stop (1955) and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957). Never a master of plot or construction, Inge was incomparably tender, a poet laureate of adolescent sexuality and middle-aged longing. An honored place in theater history seemed assured. Then all went sour. Flop followed flop; drink and depression overtook him. When he committed suicide in 1973, the New York Times obituary appraised him as a man who had "lost his gift." Gift there was, however, and after near oblivion, Inge is being rediscovered: last week the Roundabout Theater in New York City mounted a powerful Come Back, Little Sheba, the first major Manhattan production since its premiere. The Berkshire Theater Festival in Stockbridge, Mass., is currently staging A Loss of Roses with Elizabeth Franz and Shaun Cassidy. A musical version of Bus Stop and a West Coast stage revival of Picnic are pending, and Washington Post Drama Critic David Richards is writing an Inge biography.
Like all of Inge's best plays, Sheba is slight of plot but musky with atmosphere An alcoholic chiropractor (Philip Bosco) and his slatternly wife (Shirley Knight) live in a dreary house in the Midwest, diverted from maudlin introspection only by their boarder, a sprightly college student (Mia Dillon). Doom seeps through every dusty curtain. Although the husband is supposedly recovered, it is apparent that he is looking for an excuse to take a drink. Although the college girl is beloved as a surrogate for the couple's baby daughter who died 20 years before, it is evident that she will, however inadvertently, add to the wreckage of the marriage. The title refers to the wife's calling for a lost puppy, yet it is clear that hers is in truth a cri de coeur for the unbearable pain of growing old before she has even grown up. If this is the heartland, it is as seen by Freud: the husband lusts after the girl and fantasizes about her as the virtuous virgin that his wife was not; the wife acts kittenish even with the milkman; the girl selects lovers, then discards them. Middle age is portrayed as a time of aching sexual frustration, made more acute by the close-at-hand vision of youth. Some of Inge's kitchen-sink exposition seems dated and clumsy in its mix of naturalism and artifice. But Sheba remains a showcase for poignant acting. Knight attains a lumpish sweetness but does not sentimentalize her character as a victim. Bosco has little to do until his whisky-sodden storming, but radiates the disappointment that beclouds the house. Dillon blends coy charm with unhesitating selfishness. And as her beau of convenience, Kevin Conroy is boisterously funny yet pathetic, reveling in his self-image as "a brute," never realizing that it is he who is being overpowered Inge did not transform his characters: they end where they began. But he understood them. In their interplay was genuine life, often blunted but ever resilient.
Source: William A. Henry III, "The Laureate of Longing'' in Time, Volume 124, no 4, July 23,1984, pp 103.
In the last scene of Come Back, Little Sheba, at the Booth, the forty-year-old heroine tells her husband about a dream she had the night before. She was, it seems, a spectator at a track meet, watching the javelin throw. At first, it appeared to her that the star performer was a young athlete who had stirred her powerfully in her waking life, not only by posing for a drawing in his running trunks but also by seducing a pretty student who happened to be boarding in her house. Rapidly, however, he turned into a succession of other young men, whose muscular physiques and fetching ways had appealed to her rather strongly, too. The confusion was finally resolved when this multiple personality was disqualified from further competition by her father, who chanced to be an official at the meet, and the event was won by her husband, who threw the javelin so high that it disappeared in the sky. The dream ended with her discovery of the body of her little dog, Sheba, who had run away one night and never come back and whom, in some mysterious way, she had come to identify with everything she had lost in life. It is doubtful whether so much elementary and perhaps slightly preposterous symbolism has ever been crowded into one dream before m the history of the theatre, and the fact that the author, William Inge, thinks enough of it to employ it as a sort of official key to the meaning of his play may partially explain why Come Back, Little Sheba, for all the true and touching things it has to say, is on the whole much less satisfactory than it ought to be. The story so conscientiously diagrammed by the dream is a fairly simple one. When the elderly hero was a young man, he had hoped to be a great doctor. However, a youthful romance with a girl somewhat beneath him had resulted in pregnancy and a hasty marriage, and he had been obliged to give up his medical studies and take to the science of chiropractic. When the child was born dead, the couple's frustration was complete, and by the time the play opens, he is a temporarily reclaimed drunkard, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, and she is a hopeless slattern, indifferent to her own appearance and that of her house, and even unwilling to get up and cook his breakfast. Her only surviving interests, in fact, are popular radio programs; conversations with the deliverymen, especially if handsome; the love affair being conducted by her boarder, from which she obviously gets a strong vicarious excitement; and, of course, the loss of her dog It is a dismal existence, a nightmare of suburban domesticity, but the unhappy pair are at least resigned to it until the husband, identifying the boarder with the daughter he never had, is infuriated by what he takes to be an attempt of his wife to debauch her and goes back to his bottle. There is a genuinely shocking scene in which, after reproaching her with ruining his life and turning their home into a bordello, he attacks her with a hatchet, but fortunately he falls down in a drunken stupor before any blood is shed. Nevertheless, the situation is still alarming, and everybody is rather relieved when two envoys from Alcoholics Anonymous come and take him away to a hospital. When he returns, a week later, he is naturally a chastened man, and the two are reconciled. It is apparently Mr. Inge's contention that since they have nothing but each other, they had better forget the past (there is some talk about getting a new dog to replace little Sheba) and try to make the best of things as they are. I found it rather hard to believe that conditions wouldn't be precisely as bad, if not worse, within a couple of months, but it is quite possible that I am underrating the power of good resolutions, made under great emotional tension, not to mention that of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Though I have a good many misgivings about the play, which strikes me as a peculiar mixture of effective realism and psychiatric claptrap, I have none at all about the performances given in it by Shirley Booth and Sidney Blackmer. Mr. Inge's heroine is an unusually taxing part, since she could readily seem only a silly and graceless woman, amply deserving everything her husband says about her, but Miss Booth achieves the difficult feat of arousing both pity and sympathy for her. It is a considerable accomplishment, calling for acting qualities, for a range of emotion, that I hadn't been aware she possessed. Mr. Blackmer's job is easier, long-suffering husbands and dipsomaniacs being among the few almost foolproof assignments the stage has to offer, but the transition between these two conditions certainly presents its problems, and I think he handles them admirably. Of the others, I especially liked John Randolph, as a physical-culture addict, and Olga Fabian, as a busybody living next door, and there were sound contributions by Joan Lorring, Lonny Chapman, and Daniel A. Reed. Howard Bay's set, described in the program as "an old house in a run-down neighborhood," has a fidelity to these specifications that would drive almost any man to drink.
Source: Wolcott Gibbs, "The Dream and the Dog" in the New Yorker, Volume XXVI, no 1, February, 1950, pp 68, 70.