BWW Reviews: Lovestruck and Crazy Like Foxes: BUS STOP at Spotlighters
William Inge seems to have read his William Shakespeare. To prevent the highborn types who people Shakespeare's comedies from growing too monotonously similar, the Bard generally salts in one or two "rustics," simple folk, often from the countryside, who echo in low comedy ways the more elegant doings of their betters. Inge is obviously drawn to rustics. In fact, in Bus Stop (1955), now being revived by Baltimore's Spotlighters, Inge seems to have dispensed with the highborn altogether. All of the characters are rustics to one extent or another, even the mysterious defrocked academic, Dr. Gerald Lyman (Jose Teneza), who can and does quote Shakespeare at will. Whatever Lyman's true story is, in some region of his heart he is as simple and unschooled as any of the rest of them.
The rest of the characters all come from and/or work in the hinterlands: Grace (Carol De Lisle), proprietor of the titular bus stop café 30 miles west of Kansas City; Elma (Erin Hanratty), the high school girl who waits tables for Grace; Will (Richard Brandt), the local sheriff; Cherie (Rachel Verhaaren), refugee from an Ozarks town trying to make it as a Kansas City chanteuse; Carl (Steve Izant), who drives a bus route from Kansas City westward; and two cowboys Bo (James Morton) a bumptious young Montana rancher, and Virgil (RoBert Scott Hitcho), an older rancher who has acted as Bo's parent. The lot of them, like Shakespeare's rustics, are both country-bred and unsophisticated. But that is not the same as being bereft of either aspirations or brains. We are meant to fall in love with them all because in some sense they all take intelligent care of business, mostly the business of the heart.
Three couples pair off as the play progresses: Grace the proprietor and Carl the bus driver, Cherie the chanteuse and Bo the rancher, and Elma the literary high schooler and the mysterious Dr. Lyman. On their face these pairings are as different as can be. Grace is really looking for nothing more momentous than a roll in the hay (and Carl proves glad to oblige); Cherie is terrified and fascinated by the overbearing Bo, and Bo, it proves, needs to find a way to be less terrifying to win her hand; Dr. Lyman's interest in Elma is borderline creepy and yet very close to being right for them, and it is up to him to sort it out. Common to all three stories, however, is that the longings that bring or threaten to bring these couples together are strong yet in various ways outlawed. In 1955 much more than today, hookups like Grace and Carl's were widely viewed as disgraceful. Then and now, romantic demands that amount to abducting a woman, as Bo has tried to do to Cherie, are unacceptable, and thrice-divorced professors cannot pay court to high schoolers, the way Dr. Lyman would like to do with Elma.
Obviously in various ways all of these would-be lovers struggling with socially unacceptable desires are avatars of Inge himself, a closeted homosexual in an era where gay playwrights frequently tried to address their closeted and socially-unaccepted desires through odd, misfit, and lonesome, albeit heterosexual characters (think Tennessee Williams and Terrence Rattigan, for example). The resolutions Inge reaches fall on a spectrum: Grace and Carl are fine; Cherie and Bo have some major adjusting to do before she can bring herself to get back on the bus with him; and Dr. Lyman must recognize that his budding amour fou for Elma simply cannot be. But no doubt what Inge wished to convey through these diverse stories and to have audiences accept, is that love, in whatever crazy form it importunes us, should not be lightly denied.
How successful all this is now or ever was as theater is an interesting question. The biggest challenge is the Cherie/Bo plot. In a sense, this should be the least problematical: the two are young, single, attractive, and attracted to each other. But there are two impediments. Bo is an impetuous blowhard, raised, apparently, under a rock, as ignorant of the ways of the female of the species as is Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance, who has spent 21 years in the exclusive company of male pirates. Cherie, at 19, has been "around the block" more than a few times with other guys, perhaps, it seems to be hinted, commercially, and she is afraid that Bo will reject her if he finds this out, even though they have been, as Bo puts it, "familiar" already. Cherie's apprehension would have been somewhat credible, albeit probably unusual, in 1955; today it's almost ludicrous. But Bo's character always was, I submit, unintentionally unbelievable. And the quick resolution of the standoff between them, even given the suspended disbelief that stage time imposes on an audience, also is impossible to swallow. And if it's impossible to swallow, it is, I also submit, an emotionally and intellectually unconvincing glorification of crazy love, a failure by Inge to reach his dramatic objective.
None of this is the fault of the director, Fuzz Roark, or the above-mentioned cast, who, in keeping with Spotlighters' traditional high standards, seem to do as fine a job as possible under the circumstances. The circumstances are the script, which I've already discussed, and the house, which I'm about to.
This is Spotlighters' 50th season, and, as a part of that celebration, it is reviving, in Bus Stop, the very first show it put on the boards. It is a tribute to Spotlighters' staying power that few things have changed much in 50 years, but it may not be entirely a display of the best sense. I gather that for 50 years Spotlighters has been ambitiously putting on shows of all sorts in the cramped basement of a residential hotel, a space that cannot readily be enlarged. Even with good acoustics, this theater-in-the-square's seats are impeded by four large columns, columns which make every seat (many of them also without reasonable legroom) a bad one; I have sat in all different parts of the house over the years, and can attest that not once was my view of the action not partly obstructed.
This hurts particularly in Bus Stop, an ensemble piece where for long stretches all or nearly all of the cast is onstage at the same time, and the reactions or non-reactions of the characters while others are talking are critical to a full enjoyment of the show. If there are one or two characters you can't see, you are missing out. I did miss out, and I'd be willing to bet every other member of the audience did as well.
I understand that the company is engaged in a $175,000 capital campaign right now; is it inconceivable that that money could be used to move the company to a better venue? Though I write without knowledge of the numbers involved, I'm aware that the Everyman company, for instance, is vacating its longtime digs on Charles Street. Is it inconceivable the Spotlighters could move to that space? Or to Load of Fun, if it reopens? Or to the Meadow Mill complex? Any one of these Baltimore venues would provide an infinitely better visual experience than the current one.
I mean no offense to the dedicated Mr. Roark or his company; I'd just like to see them better, and in greater comfort.
What there is to see of them, however, is still worthwhile, and recommended. The flaws I've mentioned are real, but are far from detracting altogether from the enjoyment Bus Stop has to offer. Inge not only speaks up for crazy love, but for rustics who in their own ways are crazy like foxes in their pursuit of it. Crazy like a fox is usually good, especially when presented by as fine an ensemble as The Spotlighters have assembled here.
Bus Stop, by William Inge, directed by Fuzz Roark, through November 11 at Spotlighters, 817 Saint Paul Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. Tickets $20. www.spotlighters.org, 410-752-1225. Some adult content.