Director David Cromer suffered from insomnia when he was a teenager growing up in Chicago, and he filled his sleepless hours with late-night television. That’s when he first saw the 1952 film version of William Inge’s play, “Come Back, Little Sheba.” He was fascinated by an early scene in which the character Lola putters around the house and desperately tries to find someone to talk to — be it the mailman, the milkman, or the mother of seven who lives next door.
“I encountered it all by myself, all alone in the middle of the night when everyone else was asleep,’’ he says. “It’s a very bold piece of writing. It just shows her kicking around the house, and it seemed relevant to me. Loneliness is a private problem. If you talk about being lonely, it makes everyone uncomfortable and you end up being lonelier. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
He’s been captivated by the play ever since, and for years he tried to convince a theater to let him direct it. He finally succeeded in 2006, when he mounted a critically acclaimed production at Chicago’s Shattered Globe Theater. And he’s directing it again for the Huntington Theatre Company with a production that begins previews Friday and runs through April 26 at the Calderwood Pavilion.
Cromer will be the first to admit that he personally relates to Lola’s isolation. “I feel lonely all the time,’’ he says. “I’m assuming everyone does, unless you have the opposite problem where you are surrounded by screaming children or you work 12 restaurant shifts in a row.”
Inge’s play, which debuted on Broadway in 1950, focuses on the troubled marriage of Lola and Doc Delaney, a recovering alcoholic. At middle age, they are both disappointed by the dull routine of their lives, which unravel when they encounter the healthy sex life of their flirtatious young boarder, Marie.
Local actress Adrianne Krstansky, who plays Lola, does not view the character as a hopeless loser, but rather sees her as a woman who tries to make the best of a small life. “I think of each scene as a little victory for Lola,’’ says Krstansky, who is also an associate professor of theater arts at Brandeis University. “She isn’t just a desperate woman that no one wants to talk to, and with every encounter, she gets a validation or connection on some level. She is not delusional, though. She doesn’t think the mailman is going to quit his job and move in.”
Like Cromer, Krstansky understands what it is like to feel utterly alone. She had a bad dose of cabin fever after she gave birth to her son, who is now 11. “I had a few months alone at home when my husband was working, and I remember friends calling and people coming over,’’ she says. “I was like, ‘Please don’t leave. Tell me that I’m real.’ ”
The play is sometimes dismissed as an old-fashioned Midwestern melodrama, but Cromer vehemently disagrees. “I wouldn’t compare it to [Anton] Chekhov, but it makes me think of the things I value in Chekhov,’’ he says. “It is about small, observed personal behavior. I love how tiny it is. It’s a very tiny play, and I mean that in a nice way. It is seemingly unambitious, but it is enormously ambitious. It is about aging and time.”
For Cromer, who directed the SRO production of “Our Town” at the Huntington in 2012, it’s all in the details. “We are paying enormous attention to detail and have a commitment to a real exploration of time passing and a fearlessness about the portrayal of shame and embarrassment and titillation,’’ he says. “There is a phrase, ‘Live in the moment,’ which sounds romantic, but it isn’t. We have no choice. We are in the moment we are in. Sometimes they are excruciating. Sometimes they are boring. Sometimes they are glorious. Sometimes they are desolate. Sometimes they are mundane.”
Krstansky says that she relishes the way Cromer strips away the theatricality and encourages the actors to behave like the ordinary people they are playing. He is also very specific about objects. In one scene, Lola lays out a tablecloth. “I was ‘acting’ putting the tablecloth on the table, and it was hilarious,” she says. “He said, ‘You don’t have to theatricalize these tasks, just specifically do these tasks. But understand that it is a wedding gift from 20 years ago. Maybe it has been in a box. Perhaps it is delicate and fragile.’ That makes you start to become very specific.”
In his Chicago Tribune review of Cromer’s 2006 production of “Come Back, Little Sheba,” Chris Jones noted this attention to detail. “Every one of the cornflakes in the Delaneys’ kitchen seems to pulse with complete period veracity,” he wrote.
The director is approaching this production as an entirely new play. It resonates differently for him in many ways. “I have a deeper relationship to aging than I did the last time I worked on it,” says Cromer, who is 50. “I had just had the panic of turning 40, which is roughly what is going on in the play. When you turn 40, you go, ‘Wait a minute. I was just 27. I missed 13 years.’ I am not as wigged out about it as I was then.”
While he discovers new meaning in each new production, he remains convinced of one thing. The Little Sheba in the title refers to Lola’s missing dog, which disappeared a few weeks earlier. She frequently goes to the door and calls for her pet to come home. So what happened to the dog? “Oh, it got hit by a car,’’ Cromer says with absolute certainty. “Nothing hugely dramatic happened to the dog. Dogs that disappear get hit by cars.”
He does, however, recall a story about a friend who lost a kitten, “and it came back a year and a half later, covered in mud and weighing about two pounds. It was incredibly beautiful. So there.”
The story of his friend’s cat reminds Cromer that some critics of the play suggest that Lola is living in the past. “It’s dismissive and reductive and a little bit sexist,’’ he says. “Our pasts are part of us. If you ignore your past, you aren’t open to how it changes you. And if your dog is gone and you’re hoping it will come back — who can blame you for that?”
And Krstansky doesn’t write off poor Little Sheba. “I refuse to believe the dog is dead,’’ she says. “The dog has all sorts of meaning. It is hope. It is youth. For Lola, the dog was a constant companion in the house. That dog was her child. That dog structured her day. The dog gave her a purpose, and when it disappeared, she was deeply unmoored. How is it that animals can just vanish into thin air and, without explanation, go away?”
The loss of the dog, and all that it means, resonates for Krstansky, who, at 50, understands Lola’s point of view. “I don’t see myself as someone who takes care of myself,’’ she says. “My house is a mess. I cut my hair at Supercuts or my husband will do it. I color my hair out of a box,’’ she says. “Lola is obsessed with how pretty she was when she was young, and I certainly feel a nostalgia for, say, the body I had when I was 25 years old. You pass a certain age. You have children. You can’t lose the weight. You compartmentalize that.
“There was a rehearsal where all of a sudden I realized that Lola is not weird or perverted or crazy,” she says. “She is a woman of a certain age in this time and in this house, and people don’t want to pay attention to her. The thing that got her attention was the fact that she was pretty. I get the grief. My God, what happened to that girl?”
There is also the underlying question of what happened to the marriage. Lola lives vicariously through the young boarder and her beaus, and Doc romanticizes the young woman. They both harbor disappointment, and there is an explosive scene that shatters any illusion of marital bliss. But all these years after Cromer first saw the film adaptation of “Come Back, Little Sheba,” he does not have a pat interpretation of Lola and Doc’s marriage.
“Is this a horrible, toxic, codependent relationship that is only going to end in tragedy?” he says. “Or is it that two, tiny lost people at least have each other? I can’t put a verdict on that. It is not dramatically responsible to pick one version.”
Krstansky agrees. “It is either the saddest thing in the world or the most beautiful thing in the world,’’ she says. “And it is probably both.”