Joe Straw #9: Bus Stop has “exceptional performances”

Bus Stop, by William Inge and directed by Ann Hearn Tobolowsky, is now playing through December 16, 2018 at Theatre 40 on the campus of Beverly Hills High School. And as always, parking is free!

In this dingy diner, the donuts are what you’d expect, hard, under glass, and a couple of days old. Two for a nickel sounds right for a hard swallow and a nice cup of joe.

There are slightly stained swivel chairs, Formica countertops, and duct tape patches on the holes of the diminishing dining chairs. About the best thing you could say about this eating establishment is that it is clean. Which is remarkable because there’s a privy outside in the back, and everyone must scrape every scrap of mud off his or her shoes before coming in.

The dining establishment’s floor is so clean that you could almost eat off it.

It says a lot about Jeff G. Rack Set Design that although everything is somehow not quite right in this diner, things can surely get better.

For the time being, this one-horse town is a rest stop for weary bus travelers. It is a slight respite from the malignant odor of a much-travelled Topeka bus heading for destinations unforeseen and places forgone to the west.

Kansas never had it so good, or so bad for that matter. A little diner tucked away about thirty miles west of Kansas City, Missouri, or Kansas City, Kansas whichever you prefer.

The time is one A.M, sometime in the early ‘50’s, a blizzard has hit, snow has accumulated on the window seals, and the waitresses are preparing for a bus coming in because of a road closure west of the diner.

As Grace (Michele Schultz), the owner, and Elma (Mani Yarosh), high-school aged waitress, await the bus riders, they chat about all kinds of things, like Grace’s missing husband, Barton (not seen), her loneliness, and Elma’s good grades in school.

Sheriff Will Masters (Shawn Savage), mackinaw and all, without a gun, comes into the shop to tell them the bus is almost there and wondering if he could get a fresh cup of coffee.

“It just went through, Will. Fresh as ya could want it.” – Grace

And just after the bus stops Cherie (Kaitlin Huwe), a nightclub singer with questionable abilities, runs in, suitcase in tow, asking to be hid. Will, always wanting to help anyone in trouble hears Cherie’s plea, “I need protection.”

“What from?” – Will

“There’s a cowboy after me.” — Cherie

Will gets the story – about her abduction to Montana by a mean cowboy – and he says he will protect her.

And as Elma talks up Will’s ability to take on any man, a man comes into the diner.

Not the cowboy, it is Dr. Gerald Lyman (Jack Sundmacher), slightly inebriated.

“Ah! ‘This castle hath a pleasant seat.’” – Dr. Lyman – (Macbeth by William Shakespeare – Act I scene VI)

Dr. Lyman, somewhat ignorant about geography, seems slightly confused as to where he is at the moment. Carl (David Datz), the bus driver, explains exactly where he is.

Undeterred, Dr. Lyman warms himself by the heater. Then he sees Elma and his eyes light up at this young high school student.

“’Nymph in thy orison, be all my sins remembered.’” – Dr. Lyman (Hamlet by William – Act 3 scene 1)

Elma is a little confused by Dr. Lyman’s rattling off Shakespeare at any given moment and doesn’t know how to respond. The doctor orders a rye whiskey on the rocks.

That ain’t going to work in this diner that only serves sandwiches, soft drinks, bakeries, and coffee.

Will, takes a look around at the patrons and asks Carl if that’s it. No, and Carl warns him about two cowboys sleeping in the back of the bus – Bo (Niko Boles), the young mean cowboy, and Virgil Blessing (Gary Ballard), his companion.

“I’d jest as soon they stayed where they’re at. One of ‘em’s a real troublemaker. You know the kind, first time off a ranch and wild as a bronco. He’s been on the make fer this li’l blonde down here.” – Carl

There are exceptional performances in this production of Bus Stop. It is slow to start but manages to gather steam and then soars. And, as the performances end, one is wrapped up in the humanity of it all and sent out of the theatre bundled in the warmth of empathy.

Ann Hearn Tobolowsky, the director, defines the humanity of each character in ways that allow us to zero in on an expression and also a defining moment in the character’s arch. Those moments ring beautifully, soulfully, and capture a feeling of not wanting this night to end.

Still, I have some observations to share. Take what you like, discard the rest.

Gary Ballard as Virgil Blessing. The name Virgil implies a philosopher which he is as he tries to reason with Bo and teach him the ways with women. The relationship between these two could have been stronger, almost a father and son but came off as sidekick, which he is not. The ending between these two should have us all in tears but the relationship never got to that point. Ballard’s guitar playing was magnificent and worked beautifully with the song All or Nothing at All (1939 Music by Arthur Altman, lyrics by Jack Lawrence). How can we have an effective ending for Virgil?

Niko Boles had his moment as Bo, a young man who is not really that mean. He walks in with his legs spread like he’s been riding horses all day and takes a drink of a quarter of a gallon of milk in two gulps, dripping some down his chin as he finishes it. But during those moments he took his eyes off the prize, which he should never do. Inquisitiveness was one thing lacking in the way he approaches his romantic interest when things aren’t going his way. One would like to see an emotional ending to his relationship to Virgil, torn between his girlfriend and the man that took care of him after his parents passed away. Although the character of Bo could be a little more refined, still some very good work.

David Datz also had his moments as Carl. Datz has a natural presence in a defined character. His objective was clear in words but not necessarily in action. He takes his eyes off the prize during the quiet moments before leaving the diner to go for a supposedly long walk. The imaginary rope must be tied to his love interest before he leaves.

Kaitlin Huwe presents a grand figure as Cherie. The song, All or Nothing at All, was just superb. It was interesting that they chose the song to be pitch perfect. If she is that good, she should dump the guy and go straight to Hollywood. And maybe it is one reason she goes to Montana, not entirely because of the charm of the cowboy. That aside, Huwe does some amazing work as the night progresses and as she decides to stay with Bo. Her entry on stage needs work, more to highlight of who she is and what she is.

Shawn Savage as Sheriff Will Master also does a terrific job but is pretty much low key in his character. One wonders if there is any more to this character, the sheriff without a gun. Is there more to the man than his fists? The young waitress praises the sheriff on his strength and virility but that goes by like ships in the night. One wonders if there is a stronger choice for this character, his objective, and how that relates to his interactions with the other characters.

Michele Schultz gave just the right touch to Grace. She was very funny and gave the character a lot of strength and resolve. Was there a point where she invites the bus driver up to her place? If there was, one didn’t see it. And, is there more to the ending and the relationship with the other man before she closes the door on him? The ending is very sad and leaves us with little to know that more is coming.

Jack Sundmacher plays Dr. Lyman. The rumpled suit fits, the inebriated self gives him a façade, but the core of the character needs a little work. It needs definition to give him a stronger center. Once he sees the young waitress, nothing should stop him, except perhaps his inner demons. Professors are unique, each one, in their way of action and expressions. Let’s find some ways to give this character life. The relationship to the waitress should be stronger, almost to the point of being unhealthily close. The collapse is a moment that needs highlighting. It could be presented in many different ways, it could even be ambiguous, but it has to involve her, his life, and what he chooses to be at this point.

Mani Yarosh does some fine work as Elma, squinting eyes and a broad smile plays into her naivety. The scene where she finds out that someone loves her is as beautiful a moment as one could have on stage. Some wonderful work.

David Hunt Stafford wonderfully produced this production.

Don Solosan was the Stage Manager.

Michéle Young, Costume Designer, did a beautiful job with the costumes.

Brandon Barush was responsible for the Lighting Design.

Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski was the Sound Designer and provided original music.

Richard Carner is the Assistant Stage Manager, and Susan Mermet is the Assistant Director.

Ed Kreiger as the photographer and Philip Sokoloff did the publicity.

Richard Hoyt Miller did the program design.

Run! Run! And take a lascivious professor!

Joe Straw for Joe Straw #9
December 9, 2018