The play, nearly 60 years old, flirts with soap opera and the most obvious of imagery in the telling of its sad but surprisingly resilient tale.
But if done right; and it is here in a fine production from Manhattan Theatre Club; "Sheba" delivers a heartbreaking portrait of a marriage dissolving in the disappointments of unrealized hopes and dreams.
The play's dowdy, middle-aged heroine, Lola Delaney, not only pines for her lost dog (Little Sheba of the title) but for her lost youth and the love of her alcoholic husband, a love that has slowly evaporated over the years.
In the MTC revival, on view at the Biltmore Theatre, S. Epatha Merkerson, best known for her role as Lt. Anita Van Buren on television's "Law & Order," radiates genuine warmth and generosity. Lola is a nice yet needy woman, and nice isn't easy to pull off if neediness turns to whining.
Merkerson's performance is subtle, just about perfect in finding the right balance between sweet and syrupy. The actress invests Lola with a gentle truthfulness that allows the character to connect not only with the postman and the milkman, but with Marie, a young girl who rents a room in the Delaney's home, located in an unnamed Midwestern city.
Yet Merkerson lets you see that Lola's almost desperate interest in other people is the result of her growing estrangement from her husband, Doc, portrayed by Kevin Anderson. Doc is a chiropractor, who could have been a doctor if he hadn't left school to marry Lola. She was pregnant, but later miscarried.
Their relationship is strained, held together by Doc's steely commitment to Alcoholics Anonymous. It's a commitment that begins to unravel when the not-so innocent Marie, played by a delightful Zoe Kazan, takes up with a track-star stud (Brian J. Smith).
The young couple's budding sexuality awakens feelings in the gruff yet puritanical Doc that cause him to fall off the wagon. Anderson delivers a superb performance, particularly in a ferocious Act 2 drunk scene that is stunning in its depiction of a repressed man's disintegration.
It's a testament to Inge's craft that the moment is handled starkly but without sensationalism. And in hindsight, you can see the explosion building from when the curtain rises in the first act on designer James Noone's homey kitchen and living room set.
The minutiae of drab, daily living is depicted with remarkable fidelity, yet director Michael Pressman doesn't allow a sense of fussiness to overwhelm the mundane proceedings. The playwright takes his time in allowing the audience to see what has driven Lola and Doc apart after all these years.
Inge was one of Broadway's star playwrights in the decade or so after World War II. He had four Broadway hits in a row, following "Sheba" with "Picnic," "Bus Stop" and "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs." Then his career collapsed with three flops; "A Loss of Roses," "Natural Affection" and "Where's Daddy?" Inge died, a suicide, in 1973 at the age of 60.
Yet his early plays have an honesty; not to mention some powerhouse roles for actresses; that transcends the creakiness of some of his plots. In "Come Back, Little Sheba," for example, Lola and Doc, by the time the final curtain falls, have earned our admiration and affection. What might have been maudlin turns into a couple realizing they need each other, growing older and facing a future that is anything but secure.