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Vol. LXII, No. 27
 
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
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Music/Theater


LOVE AND LONELINESS: Cowboy Bo Decker (Tyler Crosby) courts the chanteuse Cherie (Veronica Siverd) in the only way he knows how in a publicity shot for Princeton Summer Theater’s production of William Inge’s 1955 dramatic comedy “Bus Stop,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through July 6.

PST Offers Blend of Dark and Light, Romance and Comedy, in High-Powered Staging of William Inge’s 1955 “Bus Stop”

Donald Gilpin

A blizzard rages outside Grace’s Diner, 20 miles west of Kansas City. It’s 1955. The bus to Topeka pulls in, but can go no further until the road ahead is cleared. During the next five hours, three locals and five travelers are stranded, thrown together. The diner is a kind of oasis amidst the desolation of the Kansas plains and the pervasive loneliness of the landscape of the human heart, as three very different romances emerge in the hours between one and six a.m.

Cherie, a 19-year-old nightclub singer who’s being abducted to Montana, ultimately comes to terms with her abductor, rodeo cowboy Bo Decker, who’s determined to marry her regardless of her wishes. Dr. Lyman, scholarly middle-aged drunkard with an affinity for teenaged girls, staggers off the bus and immediately focuses his attentions on Elma, local high school girl who works behind the counter at the diner. And the bus driver Carl pursues his amorous interest in Grace, the owner of the diner.

The results are sometimes amusing, sometimes moving, occasionally thought-provoking in Princeton Summer Theater’s sparkling production of William Inge’s Bus Stop, which premiered at McCarter Theatre in Princeton in 1955, then went on to win Broadway acclaim and two years later was made into a successful movie starring Marilyn Monroe.

Inge, “the Playwright of the Midwest,” is an odd, minor figure in the history of twentieth century American Theater. Often compared to Tennessee Williams, who was one of his mentors, Inge explores the darker regions of the psyche and human relationships, but there is no Blanche Dubois or even Maggie the Cat or Amanda Wing-field here. The moral and psychological depth and intensity of Williams or Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill are absent. Inge presents life on a more modest scale, less complex and — even in its occasional trafficking on the darker side of human nature — more innocent than the worlds of O’Neill, Williams, Miller or our best contemporary playwrights.

Inge’s greatness lies in the power of his straightforward simplicity and honesty. The world of Grace’s Diner may be a half century-old piece of Americana, evoking more nostalgia than contemporary relevance, and these forlorn characters may be amusingly old fashioned, simple and politically incorrect in their attitudes, naïve in their sensibilities, superficial in their psychological development. But they are unmistakably human, three dimensional, engaging and sympathetic. We care about their passions, their relationships and their lives.

The dynamic PST Company, comprised mostly of undergraduates and recent college graduates, renders this world and these characters with high intelligence, impressive talent, and a thorough commitment that ensures an entertaining evening. They also display a dazzling virtuosity by shifting theatrical planets, in only a few days, from Tom Stoppard’s ultra-sophisticated, super-literate Arcadia (PST’s first offering of the season) to the simple, rugged world of Grace’s Diner in 1955 Kansas. The characters from this play would need translators to even understand the English spoken in Tom Stoppard’s theater. As the giggling Cherie says to the Shakespeare quoting Professor Lyman, “I don’t understand a thing you say, but I just love the way you say it.”

William Inge’s “Bus Stop” runs July 3-6, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday, at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Call (609) 258-7062 for reservations and further information.

Director Whitney Mosery, recent Princeton University graduate, has assembled a strong, capable, high-energy cast of eight, backed by a first-rate professional production team. Allen Grimm (set and lighting designer), Mitch Frank (sound and props), and PST Artistic Director Heather May (costumes) have spared no efforts in bringing this particular time and place and these idiosyncratic individuals to life on the Hamilton Murray stage. The audience can almost smell the coffee brewing in Grace’s Diner with its yellow and red motif—high counter with three stools, two tables in the foreground, donuts on the counter under a plastic cover, linoleum checkered floor, blackboard listing the dinner specials (no cheese available — Grace doesn’t like cheese), pot–bellied stove, old sports trophies on a shelf, colorful metal sign for “Pepsi 5 cents,” and a thousand other painstakingly realistic details that all help to compel the audience’s belief in this world, these characters and their longings.

Ms. Siverd, in the Marilyn Monroe role, and Mr. Crosby as her brash suitor/abductor, take the central roles with a winning blend of panache and poignancy. The (slightly) soiled woman of the nightclub and the plain-speaking cowboy are both young and innocent — even by 1950s standards — and both must undergo a learning experience and a minor epiphany, during the course of the evening. Both characterizations are spot-on — consistent and convincing in speech, expression, gesture and action, whether in focus or in the background.

Shawn Fennell as the sheriff and Aaron Strand as Bo’s older buddy both provide noteworthy character stretches, more than doubling their actual ages to play the father-figure roles in guiding the hot-headed Bo. Mr. Fennell must first play the adversary, working to protect Cherie and keep order in town, before delivering his timely advice, and Mr. Strand exemplifies the lonely and wise cowboy, sharing with Bo his wisdom on the ways of the world and particularly of women and courtship.

Shannon Lee Clair creates a credible, appealing Grace, the owner of the diner and a woman of the world who prefers occasional loneliness to marriage and is willing to compromise on a few standards of 1950s morality in her casual affair with Carl (John Hardin), the bus driver who’s always just passing through.

Lovell Holder as Professor Lyman, the aging alcoholic would-be Romeo, and Tara Richter Smith as the fresh-faced object of his affections, or target of his predation, present a nuanced, disturbing view of the third “romantic” pairing. Mr. Holder’s bespectacled, bearded, scholarly professor does win some sympathy and he does achieve his own sad epiphany — “My name is hateful to myself.” — as he cuts short his sordid courtship. Elma, alternately flattered and repulsed by the attentions of Professor Lyman, ultimately pities the plight of this sad reprobate. Her “girl talk” scenes with the slightly older, more experienced Cherie provide an additional highlight to the proceedings.

The PST cast renders these characters with care, understanding, imagination, and good taste. There are many fine, memorable moments — some quiet and subtle, some dramatic and boisterous, often humorous, sometimes deeply moving. Ms. Mosery’s purposeful direction keeps the multiple plots and characters focused, moving the action along at an appropriately brisk pace.

The only area where this production falls short is not in the directing, nor the superb acting, nor in the outstanding production values, but in the unavoidable limitations of its casting pool. As fine as these actors — all somewhere around age 20 — are, they cannot with full resonance render Mr. Inge’s highly textured range of ages and life experiences — the older couple, Grace and Carl, for example, in contrast with the younger protagonists; or the grizzled, hardened, world-weary Virgil and the wise, hard-edged Sheriff holding back the bull-headed Bo; or the middle-aged reprobate Lyman, succumbing to his addictions as he struggles to retain some shred of his dignity in the eyes of the youthful Elma. But these actors all succeed in making formidable character stretches to offer up a bounty of fascinating figures, a compelling “composite picture of varying kinds of love, ranging from the innocent to the depraved,” as Mr. Inge described this play.

William Inge, whose short-lived playwriting successes consisted of Come Back Little Sheba (1950), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Picnic (1953), The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957), in addition to Bus Stop, committed suicide in 1973 at the age of 60. Princeton Summer Theater’s exciting production of Bus Stop is an apt reminder that Inge’s legacy lives on, and, despite infrequent revivals, his modest oeuvre may yet prove to be as timeless as the works of his more profound, more famous mid-century American contemporaries.

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