Sometimes a story just grabs you and pulls you by the heartstrings. I just watched a film version of William Inge’s haunting play, Come Back, Little Sheba. Id never seen it before and the cast is wonderful: Shirley Booth won an Oscar for her portrayal of a character named Lola and her husband Doc, a recovering alcoholic, is played by Burt Lancaster. Watching this story unfold, I was struck by how powerful and moving it is in its simplicity and starkness: It reminded me of Death of a Salesman. Where does its power spring from?
First and foremost, there is the dialogue. As a stage play, it must have been amazing to see acted. The dialogue flows smoothly and naturally — and it seems to spring from the inner lives of the two main characters. Each speaks very differently and yet every word seems right somehow. There are also many powerful moments when what remains unsaid hangs in the air as if it had a life of its own. This can be difficult to accomplish, but when it works, it works so well!
Second, there is the story itself. We know almost from the first moments we see the two main characters together that they have a painful history. There’s a warmth, yet brittleness between them that hints at the difficulties that have gone before and are likely to lie ahead. We can almost feel the room for slippage — and yet we root for the two characters to keep things together, however fragile. So this sense of something pending, something about to come unglued, is almost palpable: It sits in the kitchen with Lola and Doc. He’s in AA and when he and Lola attend a meeting for his first sobriety “birthday,” the viewer can’t help but wonder how much it will take to drive him over the edge again. So Inge creates an enormous amount of tension just through the story line.
Third, there is a robust subplot that helps drive the main story. It focuses on Marie, a college girl who rents a room from Lola and Doc, and gradually enters their lives. Seeing her young, hopeful life and her dating triggers deep wellsprings of emotion in both Lola and Doc, but for different reasons. This subplot plays an integral part in triggering Doc’s “fall” into a short, but violent bout of drinking — and a redemptive but fragile recovery.
And finally, there is Little Sheba, Lola’s lost little dog — and Lola’s dreams about her, which are woven into the story. Just the metaphor of Little Sheba is so powerful! Whenever we hear Lola talk about her, it’s with such longing, such yearning, such frail hope that something she loves that’s been lost might somehow return to her. When she stands on her porch and calls, “Come Back, Little Sheba,” she stands there for all of us, calling for that precious something that we, too, have lost and are still searching for. Now that’s writing dangerously! Write on.