Thursday, June 7, 2007
I had a little conversation with myself on my way to see the Western Stage production of William Inge’s Bus Stop on its opening night at Hartnell College on Friday. I’d already formed an opinion about the show, based on the publicity photos of Michelle Vallentyne as Cherie and Clint Ward as Bo Decker in a pose that represented one of the play’s defining scenes. “Bam!” went the thought, “she’s too hard and tarty-looking. Bam! He’s too suburban to play this part. And Bam! They’re posing as if they’re caricatures, not real people and…I knew it was going to be very hard for this cast to sell a new interpretation of the characters so richly defined by the 1957 drama-fantasy-romance film starring Marilyn Monroe and the epitome of earnest middle-America, Don Murray.
The Studio Theater seemed even more intimate than usual as the opening-night playgoers were shown to their seats around three sides of a set dressed as a roadhouse diner. As house lights dimmed, the stage hummed to life, and Grace and Elma prepared for the arrival of the Topeka bus. While they talk and bustle through the business of setting out napkins and checking the progress of pies in the oven, the crepe-soled duo establish the fact that the phone lines are down, a storm is in progress, that Grace (Mindy Pedlar) is the worn-but-still-kicking diner owner and Elma (Aaron Lichtanski) an impressionable young student who works for her.
With a sinking feeling I watched Elma sweep and fuss with magazines with no focus on cleaning or arranging while she gushed with an unconvincing adolescence…I prepared myself for a long night. Then the Sheriff, Will Masters (Tom Kiatta) entered to announce that the storm had closed the roads and that the bus, when it arrived, was to be held there. With his arrival the snow could be seen blowing outside the diner window; the bus pulled into the stop and the action of the play began.
~ ~ ~
The door flies open and a pin-curled-blonde bursts into the room, looking for someplace to hide. We have our first look at Cherie, a lanky 19-year-old woman with an Oklahoma-by-way-of-Missouri drawl, fleeing the cowboy who has kidnapped her with marriage in mind and a plan to take her to his ranch in Montana.
In quick succession we meet the rest of the characters. Professor Lyman (Jeffrey Heyer) sidles in, sizes up the proceedings and sits where he will be waited on by young Elma, who is impressed by his quickly-proffered credentials and highfaluting speech. Carl, the bus driver (Charlie McLane), enters next, a hearty good ol’ boy used to being in charge, for whom the delay means a possible tryst with Grace. Then come the cowboys everybody’s been talking about—the sidekick, Virgil Blessing (Valerio Biondo), and Bo Decker himself.
With boots and tall-crowned Stetson, Decker looks about 10 feet tall and fills his space with the untrammeled energy of someone who spends his time hauling feed and working with big animals. He’s looking for Cherie and in one long stride covers the ground to where she is sitting, wide-eyed and cowering at the lunch counter. The cast is now complete and each actor spins his or her story, which all weave toward an inevitable conclusion.
Though the set and costumes are timeless, Bus Stop is every bit as much of a period piece as The Importance of Being Earnest or Little Foxes. Authored in the 1950s, the America it portrays and the main characters living in it are lost to television and cynicism.
What innocent young man of Bo’s physicality would survive as a virgin on the rodeo circuit? What teenaged waitresses would be bowled over by an aging lecher spouting Shakespeare with his coffee? There is, therefore, only the story—slight as it is—and the deep universality of the characters to keep it afloat.
And Western Stage pulled it off—in spite of that pessimistic voice in my head.
With all of Cherie’s flinty determination to avoid the doom of a ranch in Montana too much like the Ozarks she escaped at 14, we see the untold back story of a poor girl just looking for anything she can claim as her own. We witness the gangly cowboy realizing he has to give up something in order to get love, as well as the disaster of a stumbling drunk of a professor, who’s traveling “as a merry way to go to pot,” and who finally hits bottom—perhaps from there to gain redemption.
It’s not a perfect production by any means, but interesting choices were made—it was surprising to see the usually subtle Heyer play the Professor with a full-tilt, adenoidal nose-in-the air, falling-down-drunk melodramatic bombast.
Bo’s stalwart sidekick Virgil was the only character whose ending in the play was not predestined, as he watched the bus pull out toward Topeka and walked out into the storm to spend the night in the cold. For love of Cherie? Or Bo?
BUS STOP continues at the Studio Theater of the Western Stage, Hartnell College, 156 Homestead Ave. in Salinas through June 24 with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $20 for adults, $17 for others. Call 375-2111.