On Law & Order
, S. Epatha Merkerson plays a no-nonsense police detective. In her Tony-nominated performance in The Piano Lesson
, she played a fierce protector of the title instrument. In Suzan Lori-Parks' F***ing A
, she played an adversity-hardened abortionist.
In short, she's not the first actor you'd think of to play Lola Delaney, the painfully repressed Midwestern wife of an alcoholic chiropractor in William Inge's 1950 classic Come Back, Little Sheba
, now running on Broadway through Mar. 16. Lola is a docile, stay-at-home spouse who'd rather make smiling small talk than say what's really on her mind.
This was a stretch, Merkerson admits.
"I was born in the '50s but I grew up in the chaos of the '60s, so this was something that was very foreign to me--that sort of backing off and covering up," Merkerson says of Lola's coping mechanisms. "It's such a departure from the characters I'm used to playing. And so initially I struggled with how to affect that sort of childlikeness with honesty, without commenting on it, just trying to be that."
The key that unlocked the part for Merkerson was the insight that Lola's attempts "to make nice out of terrible situations" is in itself not a weakness but a kind of strength. "It really does, in an odd sort of way, show her strength," says Merkerson. "It took me a while in playing the character to realize that, that this is an interesting and heartfelt and strong woman who, because of disappointments in her life, really tries to see the best in people."
Most gratifyingly, this is the journey Merkerson feels Lola making during every performance.
"By end of the play, Lola is discovering that she has more strength than she thought," Merkerson says. "That's one of the things I love about the character."
Of course, it's not just Lola's outward meekness that makes a with-it 21st-century woman like Merkerson seem an against-type casting choice. There is also the matter of race: Inge's play was not written with an interracial couple in mind, and Lola was first famously played onstage and on film by the white actress Shirley Booth.
To see Merkerson's Lola interact with the show's all-white cast, including Kevin Anderson as her husband Doc, adds another level of complication and conflict, and--depending how one views the ending--a shred of hope.
"I don't really like the term 'color-blind,' " Merkerson says of this momentous casting choice. "Because that amounts to saying I'm not here. I prefer 'nontraditional' or 'multi-racial.' "
Indeed, she points out, the mixed races of this couple, in a 1950 setting, can't, and shouldn't, be ignored.
"It's part of the point," Merkerson says. "It adds another layer. But the story is ultimately so compelling and so timeless that you just sort of end up sticking with the couple."
The racial angle is not the only thing that makes the production resonate for today's audiences, Merkerson believes.
"One of the things that allows the play to work so well," she points out, "is that you look up there and there's rotary phone and a radio. And you think of the things that we have in our lives now, that we're exposed to, that Lola didn't or couldn't have. She didn't have a vocabulary like we do now--we know about depression and abuse; we have Dr. Phil and Oprah.
"Alcoholics Anonymous was only 15 years old when this play was written, and in those days they didn't send you to detox--you went to a mental institution," Merkerson continues. "So in the play AA and 12 steps are spoken of in a quaint sort of way. But now we understand the depth of it. Also, Lola is going through menopause, and this is something that wasn't talked about." For Merkerson, hindsight "gives the play an added depth, looking at it with a 21st-century vocabulary and 21st-century eyes."
Working onstage is something Merkerson tries to do at least once every other year on hiatus from Law & Order
, on which she is longest-running recurring cast member.
"To get back onstage is important, because I use muscles onstage that I rarely or can't use on Law & Order
," Merkerson says. "Also, because I don't work all that much on Law & Order
, I need to do something that uses all my training--I need to challenge myself."
It's a challenge, but it's still just a play, Merkerson affirms.
"That's why they call it a play--I love that word 'play,' because it means that you make it real while you're playing, then you let it go," Merkerson affirms. This is particularly necessary with the heavy burden Lola bears: "That's way too much depression and hurt to carry around with me. We're usually laughing about something by the time we get to our dressing rooms."
Like Lola, it seems, Merkerson counts her blessings.
"I've been really lucky to have a great day job that allows me to do theatre with my heart and not worry about my pocket," Merkerson says.
We in the audience feel pretty lucky, too.
Click here for information about Come Back, Little Sheba.