Come Back, William Inge?

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

William Inge was arguably the most successful American dramatist of the 1950's. His play Picnic won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and his next two works enjoyed long runs on Broadway, both earning Tony nominations for Best Play.

By the time Inge's first screenplay, Splendor in the Grass, won an Oscar -- even Tennessee Williams was jealous of his success.

However, Inge left New York in 1963 for a house in the Hollywood Hills -- and since then, Broadway has not been kind to William Inge. Productions of his plays have been scarce and none have enjoyed runs longer than a month.

Los Angeles was not kind to William Inge either. After ten frustrated years living up on Oriole Drive, Inge got into his Mercedes one day and ran the engine until the carbon monoxide fumes ended his life.

Thirty-five years after his suicide, L.A. has finally paid the playwright some respect with two significant revivals of his works from the 1950's.

sheba-ctg.jpg Last summer, Center Theatre Group revived Inge's first Broadway hit, Come Back Little Sheba. After its modest run here in LA at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, it moved on to Broadway where it ends its two-month engagement this Sunday.

This rare LA-to-Broadway transfer was largely due to the presence of S. Epatha Merkerson (from TV's Law and Order) in the lead role of Lola.

Directed by Michael Pressman, this story of a lonely, childless housewife is presented in a naturalistic fashion. Pressman keeps the action in the fifties (with James Noone's meticulous period set) but updates the style of acting to our own more relaxed era.

Merkerson is a cool, easy to watch performer on-stage. She certainly makes Lola sympathetic, but her casual, contemporary interpretation belies the inherent staginess of Inge's writing.

sheba.jpg To see William Inge's work today is to see something that looks and feels like a re-run. The dialogue, the scenarios, even the rhythms of American speech, all feel strangely familiar even if you've never seen his work on stage. This is because Inge's commercial successes in the 1950's were such an easy template for early television writers to follow. Much of what now seems stereotypically ‘50's is what Inge pioneered. His massive popularity hinged on his ability to effectively capture the words, feelings and symbols of that era; but once others started copying his techniques, Inge suddenly began to seem clichéd.

Pressman and Merkerson try to showcase Inge's writing as art that can transcend its old age; but unlike his now more famous contemporaries (like Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller) Inge's sentimental plays lack the timelessness and relevance of their best work.

Bo Sqeezes Cherie.jpg The new production of Inge's 1955 play Bus Stop, which opened last month here at Ventura's Rubicon Theatre Company, proves that a better way to revive Inge is to fully embrace the moods and mannerisms of the past. Director Brian McDonald makes no argument that Bus Stop is anything but an old-fashioned melodrama. The acting styles are big and unabashed. Actors recite lines like "Being humble ain't the same as being wretched. I learned that when I was young, cowboy" and don't wait for punchlines, whereas in Sheba, Merkerson and the cast play the cornier dialogue and anachronisms for laughs.

Virgil Leaving.jpg Much of the reason this Bus Stop works is due the performance of Angela Christian in the role of Cherie. Ms. Christian is a veteran of Broadway musicals and she delivers her lines with a bold, breathy, play-to-the-back-of-the-house style. In more modern work like Sam Shepard or Edward Albee this theatricality would be disastrous, but with Inge it fits perfectly. Presenting Inge in this foursquare, unsubtle way doesn't suggest that Bus Stop uniquely speaks to our times, but at least it allows us to see why Americans fifty years ago, felt it so clearly spoke to them

William Inge's Bus Stop runs through Sunday at the Rubicon Theatre Company.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.