Chicago Theater Review: BUS STOP (The Raven Theatre)

by Dan Zeff on October 18, 2011

in Theater-Chicago

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CHARACTER PORTRAYALS BRING BUS STOP TO LIFE

William Inge was a hot American playwright during the 1950’s, but in the turbulent 1960’s and beyond, his realistic studies of small town Midwestern life became unfashionable. Lately, Inge has reappeared on the radar of important American playwrights, with theaters and audiences again finding pleasure in his sturdy dramaturgy and incisive, often compassionate character studies.  The comedy-drama Bus Stop is probably the least significant of Inge’s 1950s hits, but it still provides much pleasure, and its virtues glow in the gem of a revival now at the Raven Theatre.

Bus Stop by William Inge at the The Raven Theatre – Chicago Theater Review by Dan ZeffBus Stop adopts the common dramatic device of gathering a cluster of disparate characters in a single setting and watching them interact. The setting could be a stalled elevator, a jury room, a life raft, an airplane, or (in this case) a diner in a small Kansas town. The diner is operated by a streetwise middle-aged lady named Grace, assisted by a bright but naïve high school girl named Elma. A winter blizzard strands a small busload of passengers in the diner for several hours in the dead of night, and by the end of the play, the life of each passenger been changed.

The stranded passengers teeter on the brink of cliché, but they all grab the audience’s attention because they are amusing, sympathetic, and occasionally dramatic: there is the alcoholic and depraved middle-aged professor named Gerald Lyman, a rawboned and bumptious young cowboy named Bo Decker, his older friend and mentor Virgil Blessing, and a 19-year old nightclub singer who calls herself Cherie—uneducated and a little amoral, but still endearing. The characters are rounded out by Carl, the bus driver who has a sexual thing going on with Grace, and Will Masters, the town sheriff.

Bus Stop by William Inge at the The Raven Theatre – Chicago Theater Review by Dan ZeffThe action is powered by two plot lines: Bo Decker, roaring with bravado, demands that Cherie marry him while Cherie is put off by the young man’s domineering manner; at the same time, Lyman, a pathetic predator of teen-age girls, tries to seduce Elma with his courtly and worldly manner.

All the action takes place in the diner’s interior over a few hours, and the resolution of the two storylines is predictable, but the play is still loaded with warmth and humor provided by its assortment of sympathetic characters (even, ultimately, the immoral Gerald Lyman). There are no outsized villains or heroes, just men and women who entertain us with their hopes and yearnings and problems.

Bus Stop could be a plod in an inferior production, but the Raven has cast all eight roles with pinpoint accuracy. Each member of the ensemble crawls inside the skin of his or her character. Michael Stegall’s Bo Decker really looks 21 and his maturation from blowhard to vulnerable wooer is totally credible. Jon Steinhagen works wonders with Lyman, a tricky role that could descend into melodrama or bathos. Steinhagen shows the man’s painful blend of self-knowledge and self-loathing, seasoned with droll humor.

Bus Stop by William Inge at the The Raven Theatre – Chicago Theater Review by Dan ZeffThe performance of the night comes from Jen Short as Cherie. This is the role played by Marilyn Monroe in the motion picture adaptation and Kim Stanley in the original Broadway cast, and the girl is conventionally played as a winsome and brassy blonde. Short is an attractive brunette who doesn’t push the floozy element. Her Cherie has been around the block since she was 14, a product of a dreary redneck upbringing. She’s taken plenty of hard knocks but still projects a charming innocence. It’s a deft and understated performance that refuses to cater to the role’s flashy temptations.

The locals are all performed to a turn. Sophia Menendian is a charming Elma, vulnerable in her innocence but still a sharp lass whose intelligence and optimism should take her far in her adult life. Kristen Williams extracts a surprising amount of personality from the normally minor figure of Grace. Her savvy and lusty portrayal fleshes out a normally inconsequential figure in the story. Mark Pracht likewise creates a vivid three-dimensional figure out of the laconic Virgil. The ensemble is rounded out by fine performances by Dean La Prairie as Carl and Antoine Pierre Whitfield as the sheriff.

Bus Stop by William Inge at the The Raven Theatre – Chicago Theater Review by Dan ZeffJoAnn Montemurro’s insightful directing brings in the show at less than two hours, including a single intermission between the second and third acts. Her pace is perfect, with an impeccable balance between comedy and the play’s serious moments. Ray Toler designed the flawlessly realistic and detailed diner interior. Joelle Beranek’s costume designs preserve the 1950s ambience of the story. Melissa Schlesinger designed the sound and Diane D. Fairchild the lighting.

zeff @ stageandcinema.com

photos by Dean LaPrairie

Bus Stop
The Raven Theatre in Chicago
scheduled to end on December 11
for tickets, visit http://www.raventheatre.com

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com

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