BWW Review: BUS STOP at Jewel Box Theatre is a Trip Worth Taking
Let's face it, long bus rides can be an at-times uncomfortable and awkward journey. The seats are not always conducive to comfort and if there are lots of people, it's going to get cramped. But, as the saying goes, it's not about the journey, it's about the destination, and while the ride might be bumpy, getting to our destination is often rewarding and exciting. William Inge's Bus Stop, now playing at Jewel Box Theatre, is a bit like a long bus journey. The ride might have its ups and downs, but it's the destination, the pay-off, that makes it a journey well worth taking.
Inge's play takes place, as you will guess, at a bus stop, somewhere in Kansas. An unexpected snow storm has shut down the roads and stopped the bus in its tracks, leaving its passengers stranded together at Grace's Diner. The Diner's owner and waitress, Grace and Elma, respectively, welcome the weary travelers into the establishment, including a college professor, two cowboys and a nightclub singer from Kansas City. Things quickly turn serious when the singer, Cherie, claims that she has been abducted and forced onto the bus by one of the cowboys, Bo, who demands that she move to his ranch in Montana and marry him. That relationship is just one of the many which are explored in Inge's examination of the way we interact and our lives intersect as we search for love or try to avoid loneliness.
That idea, how people pursue love or run away from loneliness, is at the heart of this play. If a major complaint can be lodged against Inge, it's that his play is too long and there are scenes which could have been edited or cut out entirely. On the other hand, he's trying to fit a lot in there, trying to get the audience to become familiar with, sympathize with and relate to each and every one of his characters. While some plays might just examine one or two relationships, how they work and what makes them tick, this play asks us to think about at least five, depending on how you're counting.
Along the way, Inge creates an entertaining and witty script that really balances the comic and the dramatic, never forgetting one or relying too much on the other. Most of the comic moments are quickly followed by a dramatic one and vice versa. For example, a comic scene where an attempt at performing Shakespeare goes south quickly is immediately followed by a scene that is just as touching and moving. There's an attempt here to highlight both the sad and tragic along with the lighthearted and comic, which Inge pulls off very nicely.
Director Terry Veal also pulls off that feat with a high level of success. The transitions from serious to comic and back again never feel jarring or forced. Veal really finds the right pace and resists the temptation to speed things up, especially at the climax where the patience really pays off, making the ending all the more satisfying. Veal also does a great job keeping his actors focused and in the moment, which can be a challenge with this play. Characters are often just sitting or lying around, doing little to nothing, while other characters are taking part in the action around them. Veal never lets his ensemble slip into autopilot, though, as they are always maintaining focus and staying in character and in the scene in some way.
On the other hand, there was an awful lot of staging that could have been better, in terms of actors having their backs to the audience. The stage is almost fully in-the-round, which is always a challenge and there are always going to be some audience members looking at actors' backs. Still, there were too many scenes where all we can see are backs, including the backs of the actors doing the talking. We've got to see their faces more and there are ways to pull that off, even when working in the round. It's especially important during the small, emotional, quiet scenes between two actors, where the audience deserves to see the emotions on the actors' faces.
As for those actors, Veal has assembled an excellent ensemble of actors who create impressively committed performances. Leading the way is Claudia Fain who makes a bold choice as the nightclub singer Cherie and absolutely runs with it. Her performance may divide some audience members over their opinion of Cherie but Fain should be applauded for her nonstop, all-in performance, which she never wavers from. In addition to her energy and commitment to the role, she brings some great stage presence and charisma which will not be denied.
Opposite Fain is Craig Musser as Bo, the Montana cowboy who has decided to take Cherie back home to be his wife. Musser is another ball of nonstop energy and charisma in the role, one which he plays with a lot of nuance. Bo is at times arrogant, brash, proud, naïve, sad, angry, petulant and contrite, among other things. While there's a lot to bring to the character, Musser handles it all and gives Bo a certain sympathy or likeability that other performers might not achieve with this particular part.
As the diner owner and employee, Deborah Franklin and Alix Golden are both excellent. Franklin brings wonderful snarky sassiness to the tougher, older, wiser Grace. At the same time, she has some poignant moments of real, relatable emotion. As the waitress, Elma, Golden is the picture of youthful innocence and naiveté. She's also got a fantastic stage presence and great comic touch.
The youthful innocence portrayed by Golden attracts the attention of the college professor, Dr. Lyman, played here by Rob May, in a wonderful performance. This is a role that could become very one-note or cliché, but May really imbues the character with real depth of feeling. It's another case, also, of a character that could just be seen as a "bad guy" getting more depth and development. His actions aren't condoned or heralded, but we get the chance, through Inge's writing and especially May's performance, to try to understand better the man behind the behavior.
We don't get as much development or understanding of the other three characters, which is a little unfortunate, since they are given Great Performances. Craig Rauch gets the least to do but is very funny as the bus driver, Carl, who also is having a fling with Grace. Rauch and Franklin have a great chemistry together and make an adorable couple. As Virgil, the other cowboy on the bus, Chris Crane is understated by excellent. Many of his best moments come from a simple look or gesture, which is all we need to get the point. Finally, the most scene stealing performance comes from Larry Harris as the local sheriff, Will. It's too bad he isn't on stage more, since Harris provides such a quietly charismatic and instantly watchable personality in the wise, grizzled, tough old sheriff.
Harris has many great small moments but so does everyone in the cast, and they make the most if it. Their work together and strength as an ensemble really holds the play together and keeps it alive and moving forward. When we reach the end, they've given us a lot to consider, about the nature of love, how and why we love each other, what it means to be lonely and what we can or will do to avoid that condition. They are questions worth pondering and this is a Bus Stop definitely worth visiting.
Bus Stop runs through March 26 at Jewel Box Theatre, located at 3700 North Walker Avenue, Oklahoma City. Performance times are Thursday through Saurday at 8:00pm and Sunday at 2:30pm. Tickets may be purchased at the box office window, starting at 7:30pm on Thursday through Saturday or 2:00pm on Sunday. You may also reach the box office by phone for tickets between the hours of 1:00pm to 6:00pm Tuesday and Wednesday, 1:00pm to 7:00pm Thursday through Saturday, and 12:00pm to 1:30pm on Sunday. For more information, visit their website at jewelboxtheatre.org.
Pictured: Criag Musser and Claudia Fain