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Hard times; Stellar cast brings to life Inge's classic drama

It helps to know when going into William Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba," currently at the New Phoenix, that Inge was a contemporary of Tennessee Williams.

Knowing that helps you to see that Inge's work is just as good as that of Williams or Arthur Miller. It exposes the bitter truths of your life, the regrets of failed decisions and untaken risks. It doesn't wait for you to recover before bombarding you with another landmine. By the end, you're forced to confront the genealogical cancers of your destiny.

It's done, of course, with grace. It seduces with rhetoric you can't ignore, and characters you need to hate but want to love. It's masochistic, is what it is, and it's glorious.

But in this wonderful production, under the helm of Joseph Natale, we see where Inge draws a line in the sand -- it's somewhere that his characters believe in hope; a tough sell given their life's dirty mirrors.

Lola and Doc, exquisitely played by Kelli Bocock-Natale and Richard Lambert, are not all that different from other characters of this era: their depressions are humiliating, but not debilitating. Nothing that stops them from getting up every day. They may have given up on keeping the house tidy, but not on paying the bills and feeding the dog.

Bocock-Natale is a fine choice for Lola, and not for any obvious reason. She wears a housecoat most of the day, whether in or out of the house. She's lethargic, cleaning her living room by moving the newspapers from one side of the couch to the other. She's apologetic when guests are entertained, but gracious and lovely in her own way.

Bocock-Natale is wonderful with these contradictions. She doesn't confuse mundane action with mundane acting. You'd happily watch her flip through a magazine with a cup of coffee in her hand. Her realistic nuances help to endear her Lola to us, which very well may linger from how the role was written. (One presumes Lola is meant to be even more pathetic, even thorny.)

One reason for this is almost accidental. Bocock-Natale's speaking voice, for instance, is naturally youthful. It has the buoyancy and tenacity of a young lady selling lemonade on the sidewalk. This isn't a distraction, though. Instead, it paints a portrait of Lola as a mature woman whose poor choices in youth have frozen her in a time she cannot escape. We see her as both delusional and sad, and at times, even psychotic.

Overall, this layering of portrayals can be confusing. There are times when we don't know if we're to believe Lola is meant for an institution or just a soak in the tub. Ultimately, it's not wrong to decide one way or the other, as either interpretation shows worthwhile pathologies.

Lambert's Doc is a painting of tortured masculinity. (A kind that hasn't evolved since this era, even if it now comes with fewer cigarettes.) His part seems small, considering the comedic weight of Lola's inane antics, like asking the reluctant milkman in for a glass of water and a recitation of her entire life story. Doc is just there. His pains aren't revealed verbally until an explosive second-act scene, where Lambert shows his best riled-up anguish. This is some acting, here.

The entire cast is wonderful. Jen Leibowitz, Michael Seitz and Nickalaus Koziura are a fantastic trio of youngsters whose innate effervescence instigates the mournful regret of our older protagonist's failed youth. Many other small roles are well done, even if they're barely supportive.

There are some holes here. The symbolism that helps us to navigate Lola and Doc's story before they do is thrust upon us too soon. The first act ends the way we would expect the second act to end. The flow and pacing of the play is uneven and discouraging, but it's not a deal breaker. (It was Inge's second play.)

Enough is on the page, and on this stage, to make us rejoice in this old-school form of American drama. Because even when it's graceful, the truth hurts.

***

"Come Back, Little Sheba"

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)    

WHEN: Through April 21    

WHERE: New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park    

TICKETS: $15-$25    

INFO: 853-1334 or www.newphoenixtheatre.org