‘Bus Stop’ at CENTERSTAGE by Amanda Gunther

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March is sure coming in like a lion! Or so you’ll see as William Inge’s Bus Stop pulls into CENTERSTAGE for the holidays. Directed by David Schweizer, this charming story brings a blizzard to a little bus stop in Kansas and along with it a band of interesting characters each with their own set of baggage. From the old salt that runs the diner to the chanteuse that’s trying to escape a rogue cowboy there’s a little flavor for everyone’s palette in this drama.

Larry Tobias and Pilar Witherspoon in CENTERSTAGE’s ‘Bus Stop.’ Photo by Richard Anderson.

Scenic Designer James Noone crafts an astonishing set for Grace’s little diner. The snow is falling even before the show starts, and the walls of the diner unfold and slide into place, capturing the quaint little space where all the action happens. Noone creates a serene sense of life — captured not in a photographic moment but rather in a little snow globe; a broken down old diner just at the bus stop trapped in a blizzard. The attention to detail in regards to the set is superb, right down to the old fashioned cola poster on the wall. Noone’s efforts result in a rewarding payoff for the audience; a fantastical set that encapsulates the dream era of 1955.

Having spent such intricate time and detail in perfecting the set it is a bit of a jumble from Director David Schweizer in regards to who fits into that carefully crafted world and who doesn’t. There is this bubble containing this little diner —  not touched by time or space — standing still as it was the night of that blizzard in Kansas, and there are those who are fully immersed in that world and those who flit about the edges, visiting from time to time without lingering too long.

Virgil, Grace, and Sheriff Will Masters are deeply grounded in the reality of the atmosphere while others in the cast drift in and out like a snowdrift in the storm. One of the problems I had was trying (very hard) to believe that Kayla Ferguson (Kayla Ferguson) and Cherie (Susannah Hoffman) were the right age of the characters they were playing. Hoffman in particular carries a look of being road-worn and didn’t come remotely close to passing for 19, especially not in the way she carries her body. It is understood that her character has had a ‘rough’ five years since she started in with men, but there is an incongruity between her ditzy naiveté and worldly experience that clash – and it left me with a picture of a thirty-something woman from the Ozarks that just doesn’t fit in with what she says and does. Performing the stereotype of the dumb blonde sexed-up lounge singer, her portrayal of the lead female role was more of an archetypal notion than a well-rounded and developed character. And despite this, Hoffman does have her shining comedic moments, though. largely to do with her timing of certain lines that really triggered some good laughs.

Jack Fellows as Bo Decker, while thoroughly developed as a rogue cowboy come to claim his one true love, has an issue of emotional restriction. Fellows expresses anger on one note — shouting— but never seems to break the peak of explosion. You can see it in his facial expressions, particularly when shouting at Cherie and the Sheriff in the beginning, as if he’s restraining himself or holding back, desperate to break free into the next level of emotional expression and never quite getting there. Fellows does, however, master his twang and confident attitude, full of himself in a way that is gracefully expressed both physically and vocally.

Patrick Husted, Kayla Ferguson, Pilar Witherspoon, and Malachy Cleary in CENTERSTAGE’s production of ‘Bus Stop.’ Photo by Richard Anderson.

Adding comic relief to some tense situations are Grace (Pilar Witherspoon) and Carl (Malachy Cleary). While we don’t see much of these two, when they do share a raunchy quip or laughable moment it’s priceless. Witherspoon’s flirtations with Cleary are none too subtle and carry the grace of a seasoned woman who has made her life in the diner. Cleary’s brash honesty about his feelings toward her are candid if a bit overzealous. The pair make for a great sprinkling of hilarity throughout the production.

As for Will Masters (Michael D. Nichols) – he is in the zone of reality that is the Midwest in the middle of the 1950s. Nichols has one job, and that’s keeping peace and order in the town and he executes this task with a methodical approach. His face is stone serious and his words are the same, creating for a rigid but intriguing character portrayal, and making it that much sweeter when he takes physical victory in a fight.

Tied for best performance in this production are Dr. Lyman (Patrick Husted) and Virgil (Larry Tobias). The two characters couldn’t be more opposite than night and day, but are both equally astounding in their approaches and portrayals. Husted easily masters the staged workings of a drunk without overdoing it. Starting out as a wizened rambler; pontificating on whatever subject suits him, waxing poetic as if he were being paid by the word to speak, his character is as out of place in the little backwoods diner as a gun in a knife fight. But his execution of the degradation from sleepy and sudsy to plastered and passed out is impeccably timed.

Tobias won my heart without having to say or do much. He is the mostly silent voice of reason trying to calm the hot-headed cowboy, and the tender man with the guitar. His emotions, seldom shown, as befits the character, are raw and real; a man grounded in his own roots with little to prove and a lot to offer. He has the best handle on the sound of a man from Montana and points north and west. The audience even received a rare treat when he got to whistle, yodel, and sing during various points of the show.

So grab your ticket, pull on into the diner and wait for the snow to clear as Bus Stop will be pulling out just as soon as this blizzard stops blowing, somewhere right before Christmas.

Running Time: Two hours with one 15-minute intermission.

Susannah Hoffman, Patrick Husted, Larry Tobias, Kayla Ferguson, and Jack Fellows in CENTERSTAGE’s production of ‘Bus Stop.’ Photo by Richard Anderson.

Bus Stop plays through December 23, 2012 at CENTERSTAGE – 700 N. Calvert Street in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 332-0033, or purchase them online.