BWW Review: BUS STOP an American Classic Done Right
Coming from Kansas and receiving my education there, I have more than a passing familiarity with playwright William Inge. Being born in the small town of Independence, Inge attributed his understanding of human behavior to growing up in a small town environment. The influence of that Kansas childhood is evident in many of his works, which tend to revolve around characters that are clearly the products of places like Independence.
I remember the head of my college theatre department dismissing Inge's plays as "domestic dramas", which I thought was an unfair assessment both then and now. While Inge may not have the poetic lyricism of a Tennessee Williams or the overarching high moral message of an Arthur Miller; he did have an understanding of the concerns of average Middle Americans. It was because of this understanding that Inge became labeled the "Playwright of the Midwest".
BUS STOP is based on Inge's earlier one-act play People in the Wind and was written in 1955. The film of the same name is only loosely based on Inge's play. The play was nominated for four Tony Awards in 1956, including Best Play. The action takes place in a diner about 25 miles west of Kansas City. The play covers the time from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. A snowstorm has forced a bus to pull off the road for an extended layover. The five passengers on the bus join the two diner employees and the sheriff. As the evening unfolds, the play examines the relationships that ensue between Grace, the diner owner and bus driver Carl; Professor Lyman, a college professor with a drinking problem and diner employee Elma; and Cherie, a nightclub singer with questionable talent and Bo, a young cowboy who has decided that Cherie is going to be his bride... whether Cherie wants to or not.
Like most of Inge's plays, BUS STOP is an examination of isolation and loneliness and is a mix of both drama and comedy. Unlike his earlier two plays, Come Back, Little Sheba and Picnic, it is not a work with in-depth studies of relationships. Instead, it is more of a romantic comedy involving a pair of young people struggling to find love. Inge had stated that his aim was to "portray the full spectrum of romantic relationships, from positive to negative". The play now must be considered a look back at simpler and more innocent times that, when done correctly, can be charming. The production now playing at The City Theatre is as fine a production of this American classic as I have seen.
Director Tracy Arnold has done a terrific job with this production. It has been nicely blocked, the pacing is tight and the focus is perfect. It's a joy to watch the shift from story to story while the actors remain invested in scenes in which they are not the focus.
This is an exceptional cast that works as an ensemble to convey the great subtlety in Inge's script. Christina Little-Manley is wonderful as Grace, a diner owner that dispenses advice with an acceptance that tells you she is a woman who has more than a passing acquaintance with compromise. As waitress Elma, Jesselyn Parks, is charming and the picture of sweetness and innocence.
Dr. Gerald Lyman, the subtly lecherous professor, is compassionately played by Robert Stevens. His breakdown in Act Two is absolutely heart breaking. Stevens has done a marvelous job of keeping the character likeable while not sacrificing any of the underlying unsavory qualities.
Clay Avery is excellent as the blustery Bo, the cowboy who figures he's entitled to marry Cherie just because he loves her. His taming through the evening's procession of events is completely believable. Evelyn LaLonde's Cherie is clearly older than the 19 years that the character states as her age, but LaLonde plays the singer's combination of innocence and experience with such finesse that it doesn't matter.
Beau Paul delivers a subtle, touching and nuanced performance as Virgil, the cowboy who has looked after Bo for years. Daniel Norton's jovial bus driver Carl and Rod Mechem's fair but firm sheriff are both good and memorable performances that round out the cast.
For the most part, Chelsea Hockaday's costumes are spot on. One minor quibble is that the characters are all dressed inappropriately in terms of outer wear to be walking around in a Kansas blizzard. I also liked Andy Berkovsky's set but found the gaping black spaces where walls should be on a realistic set to be confusing and at times distracting. It conveyed an unfinished quality to what was otherwise a good rendition of an old time diner.
While BUS STOP may be a fairy tale of times long gone, it's still a nicely complicated fairy tale thanks to the voice of Inge. This production is an American classic done right and is well worth your time.
BUS STOP by William Inge
Running time: Approximately Two Hours and Twenty three minutes including two intermissions.
BUS STOP, produced by City Theatre (3823 Airport Blvd. Suite D., Austin, Tx.) March 11 - April 3, 2016. Thursdays - Saturdays 8:00 p.m., Sundays 5:30 pm. Tickets, call 512-524-2870 or e-mail email@example.com. / www.citytheatreaustin.org