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Shelter from the Storm

Bijou's Bus Stop keeps out the chill but fails to warm the bones

by Paige M. Travis

In popular culture, Midwesterners have been branded as simple folk with strong moral values and an honest approach to life. These are admirable qualities, of course, but simplicity gets boring if there's no substance underneath. William Inge's Bus Stop is a portrait of quaint, small town America, but its potential for deeper meaning is only hinted at in the Bijou Theatre's production.

Set in a small Kansas town circa 1955, Bus Stop throws together a few bus passengers stranded in a diner on a snowy winter night. Grace is the no-nonsense owner of the diner, and Elma is her teenage waitress. We meet Will, the town's kindly sheriff, Carl, the driver of the stranded bus and his passengers: Cheri, a "chanteuse" at the Blue Dragon in Kansas City; Dr. Lyman, a former professor; Bo, a rancher; and his cowhand Virgil. As they are stuck in the diner until the storm lets up, the characters' stories unfold. Bo has whisked Cheri away from Kansas City with the intention of taking her to his ranch in Montana and marrying her. Cheri enlists the sheriff's help and plans her getaway. Meanwhile, Carl (played as a sort of wicked ladies' man by Coby Hunt) and Grace flirt and disappear to her off-stage apartment. Dr. Lyman charms the bright-eyed high school girl while drinking himself into a stupor.

Because these people are stuck in one room, a lot depends on their personalities to create the action. Grace (Mary Sue Greiner-Bell) and Elma (Jenny Ballard) have a nice rapport as co-workers and a sort of mother/daughter relationship. Greiner-Bell is gutsy and country without being a rip-off of the gum-smacking Flo of Mel's Diner.

Steve Louis, who plays Sheriff Will Master, is a big man, but he doesn't use his body to command respect. His frozen stature becomes even more striking when the cowboy, played by Robby Wright, walks in. Wright swaggers and struts and takes over the whole diner with his presence. After this show of bravado, it's hard to believe that he later loses a fight with the sheriff.

Wright is also convincing as the young buck who won't take no for an answer from the feisty Cheri, played by Amy Hembree. Their fighting is more like brother and sister than Hepburn and Tracy or Sam and Diane, but they get the job done, and their inevitable happy union is poignant and believable, but not steamy. With an on-the-road bus driver, a diner owner with the absentee husband, a farm-raised cowboy and a table dancing barmaid, the potential for sexual energy in this play is enormous, but Thomas' direction and the actors never cash in on it. Maybe because this is a family theater or the actors aren't comfortable enough, but Thomas missed an opportunity to really let the sparks fly.

Ballard's young Elma is so sweet and na•ve that she seems too dumb to be an honor student. Her wide-eyed innocence that could veil a growing adolescent interest in sex and relationships, which surround her in the diner, is dulled by Ballard's constant high-pitched tone of voice and doe-like expression never break Elma out of her good-girl mold, which is a shame. She would've been much more interesting as a curious teenager, caught between the worlds of her small hometown and the adult dominion of Kansas City. Instead, she's just surprised or embarrassed. Rick Patton is similarly one-note as the ex-professor who has an unhealthy attachment to the bottle and sweet young women. Patton's drunk is neither amusing nor charming, two options that would've made Dr. Lyman more sympathetic and tragic. His pseudo-philosophical babble impresses Elma, but Ross doesn't convince us that he's anything more than a drunk pedophile.

The main reason to see Bus Stop if you are already a fan of old-time Broadway classics and tales of the mid-'50s Midwest: Tom Parkhill as Virgil, the down-to-earth farmhand who keeps the hot-headed Bo in line and gives him advice about love. The choice to cast Parkhill in this role was perfect, contrasting Parkhill's commanding stature with his soft-spokeness and hesitant but deliberate delivery. Audience members laughed or otherwise responded to almost every line he spoke. He brings a subtlety and sensitivity to Virgil that is so real—realness being the essence of Midwesterners—but not hokey nor a caricature. Parkhill points out in a way that the other actors don't that these are all simple people struggling with fears of loneliness. Parkhill reveals Virgil's struggle with a tenderness that gives the final scene a poignancy it wouldn't have had without him, that the other actors allude to but couldn't have created by themselves.

Neither the 1950s nor the Midwest is true to its stereotypes. Underneath the simple philosophies and values, people have universal fears of aging, being alone and finding happiness. The players in Bus Stop capture the basics just fine, but they struggle with the intricacies of their characters' personalities. With several funny moments, the play is enjoyable to watch, but it's less fulfilling as a drama because it gives only a nod toward the deeper workings going on underneath.
 

September 28, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 39
© 2000 Metro Pulse