Oh, the weather outside is frightful. It’s the middle of the night on an isolated Kansas highway, somewhere between Kansas City and Topeka, and a massive winter snowstorm has stranded a group of bus passengers in a diner. They pass the time by drinking coffee, eating some modest meals, and getting to know each other. By the time the storm passes, we’ll get to know a lot about them.
That’s the premise of Bus Stop, William Inge’s 1955 Broadway hit that is now being revived at Bristol Riverside Theatre. It’s a gentle comedy-drama filled with some laughs, some sweetness, and some sadness. It’s an enjoyable play stocked with vivid, earthy characters, and it’s easy to see why it was Inge’s biggest hit. But it’s a little too placid, and Director Susan D. Atkinson’s production, while it has bright spots, feels sluggish and derivative at times.
In Bus Stop, Inge contrasts the young and the old – those eager to make their mark on the world and those who have seen too much of it. From the older generation, there’s Dr. Lyman, a one-time professor whose erudition masks a proclivity for liquor and lechery. From the younger generation, there’s Elma, a teenaged waitress who is exceedingly bright but has a lot to learn about human nature. And from somewhere in between, there’s Grace, the diner’s seen-it-all proprietor, who’s looking for a little release from the drudgery of her job – and finds it in a quick tryst with the bus driver.
But the focus of Bus Stop is on its most vibrant and attractive characters: Cherie, a struggling nightclub singer, and Bo, a dimwitted cowboy who is taking her to Montana to marry her against her will. It’s up to two older, more responsible sorts – Will, the local sheriff, and Virgil, Bo’s cowboy mentor – to straighten them out.
Inge had a gift for creating colorful and multilayered characters, and Bus Stop shows how he did it: nearly everyone has ample time to tell the story of his or her life using rich, naturalistic language. These are people you’ll like being around; even the violent and pigheaded Bo comes off as likable. And although the construction of Bus Stop is sometimes too obvious and theatrical – characters are moved into and out of scenes too conveniently, a big fight scene takes place partly out of the audience’s view, and all the big plot developments are crammed into act one (almost nothing dramatic happens in act two) – the characterizations and the dialogue make up for the weaknesses.
Broadway veteran Mark Jacoby gives depth and a desperate charm to the tragically flawed Dr. Lyman. Barbara McCulloh is nicely unaffected as Grace, David Sitler is amiable as the bus driver, and Bruce Sabath’s Virgil is solemn and wistful. But Mike Boland is too downcast and reserved to be effective as the sheriff: he never commands the stage, and he’s not believable as the town’s most intimidating figure.
As the naïve waitress Elma, Linda Elizabeth gives the play’s best performance. While the others tell their stories, she stands tight-lipped, listening intently; when she learns of another character’s true nature, her face registers confusion and betrayal. But when she watches one of the couples kissing, her eyes and mouth go wide with shock and delight. Elma may be a minor character, but Ms. Elizabeth makes her stand out.
Grant Struble’s gangly Bo has a restless energy that makes his outbursts both frustrating and fascinating, but Jessica Wagner’s performance as Cherie is constrained by director Atkinson’s efforts to invoke the ghost of Marilyn Monroe. (Monroe played Cherie in the 1956 movie version of Bus Stop, a movie that eliminated some of Inge’s racier subplots.)
Wagner, a brunette last seen at BRT playing Patsy Cline (Always…Patsy Cline), here sports a blonde wig and a tight dress and seems to ape Monroe’s expressions, voice, and coquettish poses. It’s an odd choice, since inviting comparisons to a legendary movie star is rarely a good thing onstage. And it’s an odd fit, since Wagner lacks Monroe’s delicacy. It’s a strangely synthetic performance at the center of a show otherwise notable for its naturalness.
Atkinson makes a number of other puzzling directorial choices. When Cherie delivers a monologue about her upbringing in the Ozarks, Atkinson has her deliver it sitting at the diner’s counter with her back turned away from most of the audience, diluting its power. And many of the scenes peter out, drifting away before our eyes. There’s not enough urgency to the direction; it services the plot, but didn’t do enough to keep me interested.
Nels Anderson’s down-home set design and Linda Bee Stockton’s costumes add touches of authenticity.
Bristol Riverside Theatre’s Bus Stop has some lovely moments, and Inge’s vision of forsaken members of society looking for some meaning in their lives remains affecting. And it has characters that will remain with you long after the bus has taken off for Topeka.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.