URBANA — Of the plays Tom Mitchell has directed, William Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba" is among the few he always thought about coming back to.
One reason: Inge is a native of Kansas, specifically Independence. Mitchell, associate head of the University of Illinois Department of Theatre, is from Topeka.
Another reason: "The play is very simple and it always seemed very true — the relationship between Doc and Lola. I think that's why I always come back to it," Mitchell said.
This time around, he is directing the American classic at the Station Theatre, where it will open Thursday evening for a three-week run.
The play was first produced on Broadway in 1950, the year in which Mitchell's production takes place. The set even features a vintage "icebox," as refrigerators were called in the mid-20th century.
Inge's play also became a movie, released in 1953, starring Shirley Booth as Lola and Burt Lancaster as her alcoholic husband Doc (the movie will be shown at 9 tonight on the Turner Classic Movies channel).
Besides addressing human experience, loss and loneliness, "Come Back, Little Sheba" is one of the earliest honest depictions of the effects of alcoholism and the workings of Alcoholics Anonymous, which was founded in 1935.
"Inge was a friend of Tennessee Williams, and, like Williams, he investigated characters who struggled with sexuality and isolation," Mitchell wrote. "Just like the character Doc in 'Come Back, Little Sheba,' William Inge was a struggling alcoholic. He took his own life in 1973."
In the two-act play, Inge presents the lives of Doc and Lola Delaney, a quiet, Midwestern couple who have taken in a lively young college art student named Marie.
Her romantic life with the athletic Turk stirs memories of youth in Lola, whom Doc married after she became pregnant. They lost the child.
"As Doc and Lola revisit their past and confront the problems of the present, they uncover a pool of resentment and regret," reads the synopsis from the Celebration Company. "This sends Doc into a drunken relapse that nearly destroys them both."
Lincoln Machula is Doc, and Deb Richardson plays his wife. Sarah Heier is Marie. Turk is portrayed by Max Tomaszewski. Rounding out the cast are Jessica Holmes, Philip Meadows, David Barkley and Mark Fox.
Besides featuring a kitchen and living room with vintage furnishings, the set features a backdrop of a dozen or so window screens: Mitchell said those are an allusion to the proximity of neighbors and the idea that they are aware of the Delaneys' business.
With "Come Back, Little Sheba," the Station Theatre affirms its mission to present new and cutting-edge works as well as classics interpreted for today's audiences, according to a news release from the company.
If you go
What: The Celebration Company presents William Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba," directed by Tom Mitchell
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday; Nov. 13-17; Nov. 20-23
Where: Station Theatre, 223 N. Broadway Ave., U
Tickets: $15 on Fridays and Saturdays; $10 on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays
Reservations: 384-4000; http://www.stationtheatre.com