Overweight and slovenly, the housebound middle-aged Lola tends to engage in mild flirtations with the milkman and mailman as she continues to play the role of the ingratiating coquette she once was. She sees in Marie herself at that age, and encourages her pursuit of wealthy Bruce and muscular Turk.
Doc was forced to abandon a promising career in medicine when he married a pregnant Lola, and as a former alcoholic he maintains a precarious sobriety by avoiding the past. For him, Marie represents the youth and opportunity he sacrificed, and his eventual realization that she is not as pure and perfect as he imagined sends him back to the bottle and a slow descent into unbridled rage.
The title refers to Lola's missing dog, who remains lost at the play's end.
Reprising her Broadway role, Booth starred opposite Burt Lancaster as Doc and Terry Moore as Marie in a 1952 film adaptation. The story of Shirley Booth's life is told for the first time in Love Is The Reason For It All...The Shirley Booth Story by Jim Manago, with radio research by Donna Manago, and foreword by Ted Key. BearManor Media, ISBN 978-1-5939-3146-9
In 1974, the play was adapted for the musical stage by Clint Ballard, Jr. and Lee Goldsmith. Kaye Ballard portrayed Lola in the Chicago tryout, but the production never reached Broadway as planned. (In 2001 it was revived under the title Come Back, Little Sheba at the White Barn Theatre in Westport, Connecticut with Donna McKechnie as Lola. A recording of this production was released by Original Cast Records.)
In 1984, the Roundabout Theatre Company mounted an off-Broadway revival starring Shirley Knight as Marie, Philip Bosco as Doc, Mia Dillon as Marie, Steven Weber as Bruce, and Kevin Conroy as Turk . In his review in Time, William A. Henry III observed, "Like all of Inge's best plays, Sheba is slight of plot but musky with atmosphere . . . Middle age is portrayed as a time of aching sexual frustration, made more acute by the close-at-hand vision of youth . . . Inge did not transform his characters: they end where they began. But he understood them. In their interplay was genuine life, often blunted but ever resilient."
A Broadway revival of the Inge play opened on January 24, 2008 at the Biltmore Theatre. Directed by Michael Pressman, it stars S. Epatha Merkerson as Lola, Kevin Anderson as Doc, and Zoe Kazan as Marie. In his review in the New York Times, Ben Brantley called it a "deeply felt revival" and a "revitalizing production of a play often dismissed as a soggy period piece" and added, "Ms. Merkerson allows a kind of intimate access traditionally afforded by cinematic close-ups, when the camera finds shades of meaning in impassive faces. She rarely signals what Lola’s feeling; she just seems to feel, and we get it, instantly and acutely. Such emotional sincerity is the hallmark of this revival from the Manhattan Theater Club, directed with gentle compassion by Michael Pressman and featuring first-rate performances from Kevin Anderson and Zoe Kazan. The production’s commitment to its characters uncovers surprising virtues in William Inge’s play."