The setting for William Inge’s 1955 play, Bus Stop, is a roadside diner 25 miles outside Kansas City, Kansas. A treacherous snowstorm has blanketed the thoroughfares, preventing all highway travel — halting the bus on which four passengers are being transported westward. They find shelter and warmth in the apparently benign coffee shop/bus stop, owned by the middle-aged divorcee, Grace Hoylard, who employees a bright but naive high school girl, Elma Duckworth. The county sheriff, Will Masters, is a regular presence at the diner, and the bus driver, Carl, takes occasional layovers at this stop.
In this anomalous weather situation, however, all of those onboard the bus must disembark into diner. We meet the enigmatic, hard-drinking professor, Dr. Gerald Lyman, who takes a particular interest in young Elma. We are alarmed when tawdry, but sexy, self-declared chanteuse, Cherie, rushes into the diner alleging that she’s been abducted by a cowboy. After further exposition — learning of Grace’s yearning for some male intimacy (Carl will do); Elma’s high scholastic achievement; Dr. Lyman’s propensity for pontification; and Cherie’s impoverished upbringing — we encounter an aged Virgil Blessing, a Montana ranch hand, and the cowboy, Bo Decker, who at the age of 21 owns the Montana ranch where Virgil works.
The Broadway premier of this romantic dramedy took place in March of 1955, ran for 478 performances, and won four Tony Awards, including the top trophy for Best Play. Seeing Theatre 40’s production of Bus Stop demonstrates why this mid-century conceit is worthy of such accolades; it’s heartfelt; heartwarming; and full with deceptively modest midwestern charm.
Directed by Anne Hearn Tobolowsky with an astute sensibility for the longing of Inge’s characters, the simple plot is made as clear as a starry night following a heavy snow. Adding authenticity to the proceedings are Jeff G. Rack’s period-precise set design; Michelle Young’s timeless costumes; and the lighting motif designed by Brandon Baruch, which evokes the florescence of diner lights and the dark chill of an inclement night. Plus, there’s the added delight of Joe “Sloe” Slawinski’s original music and sound design.
The high quality direction and stagecraft immerses us in a showcase that highlights the skills of this ensemble, and unlike the Marilyn Monroe movie of the same title, this Bus Stop is, indeed, an ensemble effort undertaken by a most capable cast.
As Virgil, Gary Ballard is wise and worn; gentle and caring. As Bo, Nico Boles plays the braggadocio of this unworldly cowboy with élan, but the authenticity and neediness of this character becomes naturally and credibly revealed through the sincerity and commitment Boles embodies in his portrayal of this character. Carl is slyly and humorously characterized by David Datz, as is Michelle Schultz’s portrait of Grace.
Will Masters becomes a model of fairness and justice as played by Shawn Savage. And Dr. Lyman is a tragic parody of a downtrodden academician fueled by alcohol as he runs from his past and hides from the present. Mani Yarosh is sweet and endearing as the woman-child Elma. And Kaitlin Huwe is stunning as the cheapishly endearing chanteuse, Cherie; we empathize with her and understand that she is a victim of her ignorance and misunderstandings of love and life.
This Bus Stop is a must stop for theatergoers.