Kelli Bocock-Natale found her dream role early on.
As a college student, Bocock-Natale played a scene as Lola, the lead character in William Inge's powerful 1950 drama "Come Back, Little Sheba." There was just one problem: Bocock-Natale was a few decades too young to play the role.
So she waited. And waited. And on Thursday, the actress -- who continues to look far younger than her beloved character's age -- finally stepped onto the stage of the New Phoenix Theatre and into the role she'd fallen in love with as a student. The play, Bocock-Natale said, has been a constant source of fascination for her across her busy acting and directing career.
"Over the years, I've read it and loved it and read it and loved it and just kind of bided my time to be the right age to play it," she said. "It's definitely a dream come true for me to do this part."
The New Phoenix production of Inge's play, a tale of marital discord and alcoholism in the midcentury Midwest, is directed by Joseph Natale, Kelli's husband. In addition to Bocock-Natale, it stars New Phoenix founder Richard Lambert as Doc, Lola's alcoholic husband who struggles simply to make it through the day and to fight off a lifetime of self-imposed disappointments. Natale, like Lambert, considers Inge a more sober-minded and earthbound version of Tennessee Williams, whose plays often deal with similar subject matter in a loftier and far more poetic style.
"I know that [Inge] wanted to come up to Williams' standard as a playwright. I don't think he ever achieved it, in his own mind, but he did it differently," Natale said. "I think the story is so everyday that we know these people, even though they're highly dramatic and he's a reforming alcoholic and she's a lonely, abject woman for a while. But they're totally recognizable."
For Bocock-Natale, the it-could-happen-anywhere tone of the play is at the center of its appeal.
"What I love about it is that the crisis isn't like somebody dies or somebody gets kidnapped. The crisis is one that happens to people every day," she said. "He falls off the wagon, and she has to deal with that. And I think people in this country, in this city, everywhere, deal with that kind of crisis every day."
As for the practical considerations of stepping into the challenging, canonical characters of Lola and Doc -- roles local theatergoers might not associate with Bocock-Natale and Lambert -- both actors agreed that the process hasn't been a cakewalk.
"It's a challenge for both of us. I'm usually the broad comic in a show, or belting out a tune or something. So the challenge has been to play it realistically," she said. "[Richard] is doing a lovely job and really challenging me to step up my game, shall I say, because it is really outside my comfort zone, and it's outside his in many ways."
Lambert's character, Doc, evinces a kind of painted-over rage and quiet desperation, something Lambert said has been an exciting challenge to pull off.
"I'm used to going out there and just slamming things around. I know I can make people laugh, I know: give me two minutes, I'll make you cry here. All of that's banished here," Lambert said. "Feelings in the character of Doc just simmer and simmer. Every once in a while, he shows his face through Jack Daniel's or Chivas or just goes on a tear, a big bender, and everything is chaotic once again."
What Lambert hopes comes through, he said, is "humanity of the piece and taking care of someone you love. Even when they're swinging their fist at you or swinging a gun at your head, you've got to ultimately know: that's a moment, you've got to live through the moment and eventually you'll be back in my arms."
"Come Back, Little Sheba"
WHEN: Through April 21
WHERE: New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park
TICKETS: $15 to $25
INFO: 853-1334 or www.newphoenixtheatre.org