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Nicholas Martin-Directed 'Bus Stop' at Huntington Theatre Company

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Bus Stop

Written by William Inge, Directed by Nicholas Martin; Scenic Design, James Noone; Costume Design, Miranda Hoffman; Lighting Design, Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design, Alex Neumann; Casting, Alaine Alldaffer; Production Stage Manager, Leslie Sears; Stage Manager, Kevin Robert Fitzpatrick

CAST (in order of appearance): Elma Duckworth, Ronete Levenson; Grace Hoylard, Karen MacDonald; Will Masters, Adam LeFevre; Cherie, Nicole Rodenburg; Dr. Gerald Lyman, Henry Stram; Carl, Will LeBow; Bo Decker, Noah Bean; Virgil Blessing, Stephen Lee Anderson

Performances through October 17 at Huntington Theatre Company (main stage)              Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org

Bus Stop by William Inge tells a universal story with charm and simplicity. Written in 1955, it reflects the mores and innocence of its time when traveling the country by bus seemed romantic and life's problems could be salved with a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. Whether or not the play has something to say to an audience in 2010 is up for debate. The Huntington Theatre Company presents Bus Stop for its 29th season opener with a strong ensemble cast under the skilled direction of former HTC Artistic Director Nicholas Martin.

A small group of passengers seeks shelter and sustenance for the night in a roadside diner outside of Kansas City when a snowstorm strands their bus until the highway ahead can be cleared. Waiting to serve them are the hard-boiled, world-weary proprietress Grace and her young naïf Elma, a high school girl champing at the bit to sample life. Sheriff Will Masters is a salt-of-the-earth type who provides a quiet protective presence and will step in as needed. The bus driver Carl seeks some r-and-r with Grace and leaves his charges to settle in for the duration of the storm. Nightclub singer Cherie is trying to escape the affections foisted upon her by a rowdy, love struck cowboy from Montana named Bo. Rounding out the group is Bo's ranch hand cum surrogate father Virgil, a quiet guitar-playing Everyman, and Dr. Gerald Lyman, a vagabond academic.

At first glance, the story focuses on Cherie (Nicole Rodenburg) and Bo (Noah Bean). He has, for all intents and purposes, kidnapped her with the intention of taking her to his ranch to marry her, but she hopes to ditch him at the bus stop. Rodenburg and Bean pair nicely as the sparring couple. Cherie has been around the block a few times, but Rodenburg manages to give her a fresh spirit and some brains to go along with the typical heart of gold, dumb blonde persona. Bean exudes cowboy sensuality with an underlying innocence that he masks with brashness. His standard pose with his thumbs hooked on his belt and one hip kicked out at an angle make it appear that he's ready to bust a bronco. Bean also has an easy chemistry with Stephen Lee Anderson whose Virgil is about as laid back as they come. He's seen it all and fits comfortably in his own skin, unlike his firecracker buddy Bo.

Karen MacDonald and Will LeBow, veteran accomplished Boston actors, serve as anchoring bookends in the roles of Grace and Carl. Their experience working together shows as they have a ready affection for each other. Their characters normally meet for only twenty minutes at a time when the bus passes through, but on this night they appreciate the chance to get to know one another more intimately and take a break from the loneliness of their routines. Henry Stram brings to the fore the self-loathing of the alcoholic lothario Dr. Lyman, professing his pleasure at being free to roam the country, while not so quietly suffering the shame of his past. His debasement stands in stark contrast to the moral integrity of Sheriff Masters, a big man in several meanings of the word. Adam LeFevre brings out his inner strength and convinces us that he learned some important lessons along the way to his current position.

Elma Duckworth is the personification of the sweetness and innocence inherent in Inge's story and Ronete Levenson nails the part. She portrays the youthful curiosity, the goodness, and the total lack of cynicism appropriate for the unworldly high school girl. Even when she is exposed to a few of the adult foibles flying around her, Levenson's Elma thoughtfully receives and processes the information and responds with grace and maturity. Like her seniors, she figures out that love may come in an unexpected package, but is still to be valued, perhaps above all.

The search for love is the one thing that connects Inge's disparate characters to each other and to all of us in 2010. While the conditions around us have changed markedly in the five plus decades since Bus Stop was written, the human condition is less changed. We still seek connection, even when we sit alone in front of our computer screens. We still seek someone to love, or at least to lighten the lonely times. We sit in the dark with strangers and watch a play about people in pursuit of their dreams, perhaps recognizing ourselves in their midst.

Unfortunately, although it is a well-written slice of life, this telling of the story feels tired and tame by today's standards. The idea of a cowboy virtually hog-tying a woman and tossing her over his shoulder to get his way with her is, at best, so yesteryear. We're used to a faster, bolder pace, and not much happens during the course of this night outside of the boy gets girl scenario. The humor and warmth of Inge's words converge, but their dramatic effect is subdued.

Scenic Designer James Noone's unit set pays homage to that of the original Broadway production which earned a 1956 Tony nomination for Boris Aronson. The high-ceilinged, spacious room is worn and dingy, yet clean and orderly. There is a long bench under the tall windows that look out on mounds of snow and the flakes which continue to fall. Stage left features a row of stools, a lunch counter with a plate of doughnuts under a glass cover and a coffee percolator, and a wall of old-fashioned restaurant appliances. Small round tables and chairs populate the center of the room under dim light fixtures, and there is a door to the outhouse downstage right. Another door in the far corner leads to Grace's unseen apartment above. Philip Rosenberg's lighting affectingly takes us through the late night and early morning hours, painting the walls with a warm, rosy glow at dawn and a bright, snow-reflecTEd Whiteness to welcome the new day. Miranda Hoffman designs evocative period waitress uniforms, right down to Elma's saddle shoes, and rugged western wear for the sheriff and the cowboys. Dr. Lyman looks every bit the Eastern college professor in his tweeds, and Cherie's glittery form-fitting gowns tell us exactly who she is and where she's been.

To enhance one's appreciation of Bus Stop, it may be helpful to consider some traits of Inge, including his alcoholism, his closeted sexuality, and his Kansas roots. Dubbed "The Laureate of Longing" by Time magazine, the playwright understood that drama grew out of the characters' search for their hearts' desire, not in achieving it, and he hews to that template here. However, in the final analysis, Martin and company give us an appealing production of dated material.

Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson (The cast of Bus Stop)

 


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