S. Epatha Merkerson on ‘Little Sheba,’ ‘Law & Order,’ and Uncle Bill

Photo: Joan Marcus

For those of us who know S. Epatha Merkerson as Law & Order’s tough-as-nails Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, witnessing her seamless transformation into a doting housewife swanning onstage in floral sundresses on Broadway can be a bit jarring. But Merkerson is already garnering rave reviews for her new role as Lola Delaney in William Inge’s classic Come Back, Little Sheba, a fifties drama set entirely within the downstairs of a shabby midwestern home. After we stalked her on the play’s opening night, Merkerson kindly agreed to chat with Vulture one-on-one this week.

So, do you identify more with Lola or Lieutenant Van Buren?
I think there’s a combination in me, you know what I mean? There’s a part of me that really understands and gets Lola, someone who would love to be taken care of and loved and cherished, and then there’s the other part of me that’s a control freak, that Anita Van Buren gets to play. The best point of Lola’s life was when she was a young girl, and it’s really challenging to find that yearning in her when playing her as a middle-aged woman.

The subtext definitely isn’t clean: It seems as if everyone is trying to stay afloat over this sexual undertow.
We have a different vocabulary now — a sexual vocabulary and a therapy vocabulary — and that makes the play resonate more deeply. Inge was homosexual, so you have to wonder if that had something to do with Doc and his discomfort with the young men who date Marie. Inge also leaves open the possibility that Lola might have had an abortion, which was something people didn’t talk about back then.

Was there a lot of discussion during rehearsal about how to deal with such layered material?
I’ve never been involved with a process where there was so much conversation outside of the play. The cast started referring to [Inge] as Uncle Bill — we wished he were alive so we could ask him questions, because so much isn’t in the dialogue, so much is left unwritten. It can go so many different ways.

Do you feel that your race nuanced a role that was perhaps originally intended for a white woman?
These roles weren’t originally written for an interracial couple, but they still resonate clearly. In a wild and wonderful way it gave the dynamic a deeper complexity because you can take their unhappiness in so many different ways. In the script, Lola’s father disowns her — that doubly resonates since Doc is white and we can assume Lola’s family is not. There’s now a new perspective, a new way of looking at it, but I think the audience is also ultimately connecting to us as just another married couple.

Were you worried about juggling both a Broadway play and your Law & Order duties?
I hope the writers’ strike gets resolved soon, but it’s been a bit serendipitous for me: I have more time to focus on the play now. I think the [Law & Order] cast is going to return to the set at the end of February, but I’m going to take it a day at a time. Right now I can focus on being Lola and know that my day job will waiting for me whenever it’s there. —Annsley Chapman


Related Jeremy McCarter reviews Come Back, Little Sheba
Earlier: We Heart Newly Minted Broadway Star S. Epatha Merkerson