StageSceneLA: Bus Stop is “absolutely terrific”

No one wrote about 1950s middle-America more accurately, astringently, and affectionately than “Playwright of the Midwest” William Inge, proof positive of which can now be seen in Theatre 40’s absolutely terrific revival of Inge’s 1955 gem. Kaitlin Huwe makes her T40 debut as Ozarks-born-and-bred nightclub “chantoosie” Cherie opposite Niko Boles as Bo, the Montana cowpoke so smitten at first sight that he has “abducted” the blonde beauty with the intention of putting a ring on her wedding finger the second they arrive at the Montana ranch he calls home.

Unfortunately for the infatuated Bo (though fortuitously for the less-than-lovestruck Cherie), the couple’s bus trek to Big Sky Country has gotten itself interrupted by a snow storm, one that has left them and their two fellow passengers stranded overnight in a small-town diner 25 miles west of Kansas City.

Not surprisingly, drama ensues, the kind that allows playwright Inge to exhibit the same understanding of small-town Midwesterners that had earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Picnic three years earlier.

These rural Kansans include tough-talking but tender-hearted diner owner Grace (Michele Schultz), more than willing to take advantage of a convenient “headache” (and the bus’s longer-than-usual rest stop) to head on up to her apartment for some late-night frolicking with bus driver Carl (David Datz), upstairs hanky-panky that leaves the diner in the more-than-capable hands of teenage waitress Elma (Mani Yarosh), a high schooler with college dreams who has caught the fancy of Dr. Gerald Lyman (Jack Sundmacher), a considerably older philosophy professor with an obvious drinking problem—and an unfortunate penchant for girls one-third his age.

Also along for the bus ride is Virgil (Gary Ballard), the ranch hand who has raised Bo since his parents’ deaths ten years before, with diner regular Sheriff Will (Shawn Savage) completing the mix.

Director Ann Hearn Tobolosky ensures both sweetness and bite in performances that ring absolutely true to Inge’s vision of mid-‘50s rural America, beginning with Huwe’s radiant star turn as the sweet-and-sensual Cherie, who uses bravado to hide self-doubt when she’s not heating up Grace’s winter-chilled diner with a sultry “That Old Black Magic.”

Boles follows his dumb-but-cute Chauncey in T40’s Screwball Comedy with the equally appealing (though perhaps only a smidgen smarter) Bo, whose purity of heart just might be enough to make Cherie see beneath the outer oaf.

Splendid too are Schultz’s salty Grace, igniting latish-in-life sparks opposite Datz’s fine and folksy Carl; a heartbreakingly real Sundmacher as pervy, poetic prof Dr. Lyman, lusting for Yarosh’s Elma, so genuinely Midwestern it comes as more than a bit of a surprise that the L.A. newbie hails from Hell’s Kitchen New York; and Theatre 40 treasure Savage as no-nonsense lawman Will, all eight players proving as watchable on the outskirts of the action as they are when taking center stage.

And speaking of stages, Theatre 40’s extra-wide playing area allows scenic designer Jeff G. Rack to create an absolutely authentic 1950s Kansas diner complete with leatherette booths, vintage cigarette machine and jukebox, and era-appropriate props including a straight-corded black wall phone.

Brandon Baruch lights with expert attention to where our eyes should be focused, Michêle Young’s costumes are mid-20th-century small town perfection (with special snaps to Cherie’s idea of glamorous), and Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s sound design combines ambience-establishing effects and original music.

Also deserving of mention are Michele Bernath’s choreography, William Joseph Hill’s fight choreography, and Kalie Quinones’s dialect coaching.

Bus Stop is produced by David Hunt Stafford. Susan Mermet is assistant director. Don Solosan is stage manager and Richard Carner is assistant stage manager.

William Inge’s characters may not be big-city sophisticates, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less deserving of an audience’s attention, even sixty-three years after they made their Broadway debut, as Theatre 40’s pitch-perfect Bus Stop makes abundantly clear.