A Role Close to Home // By Heather MacRae
Heather MacRae taps into her personal experiences in Come Back, Little Sheba.
In the summer of 2016, my friend, Jack Cummings, asked me to meet him at our local Upper West Side diner. He wanted to talk to me about something. Jack is the Artistic Director of Transport Group. I had just finished the second incarnation of his production of I Remember Mama at New Jersey’s Two River Theatre, one of Transport Group’s most successful shows. Jack told me that he wanted to do two William Inge plays in repertory for his next season: Picnic and Come Back, Little Sheba. I love William Inge. I think he is one of our finest American playwrights. Jack said, “I want you to play Mrs. Potts in Picnic, and Lola in Come Back, Little Sheba.” Several years prior, we had done two staged readings of Sheba and it was thrilling to work on that play. I was a bit surprised though and said, “Jack, I think I am a tad bit too old now to play Lola.” He said, “Nonsense, you will be wonderful. Don’t worry about the age.”
Jack’s enthusiasm can get you to do anything. So, in the winter of 2017, we started working on the two plays. Obviously, since we were doing two plays, we had to split the rehearsals. Some days we worked on Picnic first, and then Sheba, and vice versa.
Now, I work in a very organic way; I don’t like to learn my lines until we start blocking. I don’t want to make decisions about my character until we start moving around the stage. This became very challenging for me because I had to learn both roles at the same time. Mrs. Potts was easy. But let’s face it—Lola is never offstage except for a few minutes. I had my work cut out for me.
I love Lola. She is a dear person, very sad and sweet. Her loneliness is palpable. Her whole life revolves around her husband, Doc, who is an alcoholic—a very bad drunk, at times. When I was cast, I knew I could play this part. I understand what it’s like to live with an alcoholic. My father, Gordon, was an alcoholic. The lives of my mother, me, and my siblings revolved around him. Was he going to come home drunk? Would he be mean? Would he yell at us, or just go into his room and pass out? This is what Lola experiences in the play. She has to tiptoe around Doc and make sure he doesn’t turn on her or threaten her. I have lived through that many times. I carried my childhood experiences into adulthood; almost every man I fell in love with was an alcoholic, or an addict.
The first week of rehearsal, we sat around a table and just talked about alcoholism, and its effect on us. The actor playing Doc, Joe Kolinski, said that he had had some issues with drinking. I shared my own history. It proved to be very informative for all of us.
One night, we were getting ready to stage the scene where Doc comes home after falling off the wagon and is very drunk. He becomes verbally abusive and threatening towards Lola. It is a difficult scene to stage. You have to make sure no one gets hurt. Joe came over to me and told me that he was not looking forward to working on this scene. He felt badly that he would have to treat me so horribly and say such terrible things to me. I told him that we had to face it. It was awful for me to hear these things and feel afraid for my life. But we just had to dig down into the deepest parts of our psyches and souls and go there.
It was not easy playing Lola, but it was so cathartic for me. I especially loved her willingness to speak to strangers, trying to make friends with the Postman and the Milkman. Those scenes were very special to me; partly because both roles were played by the great John Cariani. In those scenes, I could be playful as Lola. I also loved the scene where Doc does his card tricks for Lola—Joe was so charming and delightful showing her the cards. Despite their incredibly difficult relationship, they do love each other—very much. Just the way I loved my father so much, even when he was mean. Eventually, my father became sober, and I came to understand that he had a sickness, a disease.
When Inge wrote Come Back, Little Sheba, there were only a couple of choices for the alcoholic if they wanted to get sober. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) had just started but was relatively new. Options were few—they could either go to the drunk tank in jail or a sanitarium if they had money. There were no fancy clinics like Betty Ford or Hazelden (where my father went).
For Lola, there was no one to talk to about her husband’s problem—the only exception being Doc’s sponsors and friends from AA who would come to take him away to get sober. She really didn’t have any friends; even her parents seemed indifferent to her pain. The great difference between Lola and me is that I have always had a lot of friends. A lot of them come from similar backgrounds with an alcoholic parent. I also went to Al-Anon for many years and shared my hope and strength with others like me.
I love Sheba for so many reasons, one being for shining a light on a difficult, and painful problem that so many people suffer with. I love Lola’s loving spirit against all odds that she will ever live a different life. I love that Doc keeps trying to get sober and keeps fighting against this terrible disease. I love that Inge put the three young people in this play to show what it was like to be so full of love and lust. Lola loves to watch Turk and Marie, reminding her of those nights with Doc when they were young and in love. I love how excited she gets when she prepares the dinner for Marie and her fiancé, Bruce.
I have to confess that even though I lived through some pretty difficult times with some of my chosen partners, I still have love in my heart for all of them. Like Lola, who will always love Doc.
My personal favorite moment was at the end of the play. Doc has returned home, sober once again. Lola is dressed in a nice dress. She has cleaned the house and prepares breakfast for her husband. We actually had a real stove and refrigerator. Jack wanted me to crack the eggs, pour the milk into a bowl, and start mixing it all together. At first, it drove me crazy—so many props: the coffee cup, the plates, the forks, the spoons, the bowl, etc. But eventually it became second nature to me. And while I am doing all of this, I tell Doc my latest dream about our little dog, Sheba, who has disappeared. It is a brilliant monologue, and Lola sees Sheba in the dream, lying on the ground, dead. She finally accepts that Sheba is never coming back. She is sitting at the table next to Doc at this point, and he holds her hand. She then gets up and walks to the counter and begins to whisk the eggs. Lola then turns back for a second to look at her husband. The lights fade. I thought the simplicity of that ending was particularly beautiful. Life will go on; it will probably be hard again for Doc and Lola, but right now they are together in that house, in their kitchen about to eat breakfast together. Simple, real, and beautiful.
Playing Lola truly was one of the finest moments in my entire career. Even though I am several years older, I would still want to play her again. She is one of the greatest roles ever written for a woman in the American theater. So, here’s to all of the Lolas out there. Be strong and keep hope in your heart.
About the author:
Heather MacRae’s career spans 50 years. She has appeared on Broadway and Off-Broadway, and in films and television. Ms. MacRae received a 2017 OBIE Award for her performance as Lola in Transport Group’s highly acclaimed production of Come Back Little Sheba. She also appeared in Transport Group’s I Remember Mama, which was remounted at Two River Theatre. Broadway credits include the original companies of Hair, Falsettos, A Catered Affair, and more. She has been performing in clubs and concert halls since 1980. She received a BISTRO and MAC award for her critically acclaimed show, Songs For My Father; a tribute to her father, Gordon MacRae. Solo recordings: Songs For My Father and I Choose Love. Upcoming credits include Charles Busch’s film The Sixth Reel. Please visit her at www.heathermacrae.net.