Theater Review: BUS STOP (Eclipse Theatre in Chicago)

by Lawrence Bommer on July 21, 2018

in Theater-Chicago

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RIGHT PLAY, WRONG STOP

The plays of William Inge, featured this season by Eclipse Theatre Company, offer a bedrock realism that fuels the down-home decency of his small-town characters. But this closeted playwright made one emotion his particular domain — loneliness. In Picnic, Come Back, Little Shebaand The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (to close the Eclipse season as Natural Affection began it), Inge projected his own sexual isolation onto his dogged or disillusioned lovers. For this future suicide (recently portrayed in Raven Theatre’s The Gentleman Caller by Philip Dawkins), the dark always lurked at the top of the stairs and love was at most a feeble and unearned distraction.

Inge’s 1955 triumph Bus Stop is potentially his most buoyant comedy, a virtual celebration of strangers snowbound by a March snowstorm in a diner outside Kansas City. Inge depicts a rich mix of fixed and transient souls and, like a short order chef in high gear, makes their longings quickly matter.

The big heart of this old-fashioned play is a tempestuous courtship between two seemingly mismatched but inevitable lovers. As envisioned by Inge, Bo (Anthony Conway) is a strapping, cocky, headstrong 21-year-old Montana cowpoke. This impetuous orphan finds himself smitten stupid by 19-year-old Cherie (Daniella Pereira), an Ozark “chanteuse” who Bo has wooed, pursued and abducted after hearing her croon “Old Black Magic” in a Kansas City nightclub.

An obstreperous galoot with more strength than sense, Bo intimidates his “Cherry” with a tornado-like ardor (which today would be, rashly or rightly, labeled sexual abuse). Secretly shy and gentle, Bo overcompensates by confusing intensity with sincerity. Both kids have secrets to grow out of: If Bo pretends to more conquests than he really notched, Cherie pretends to fewer.

Inge contrasts the convulsive couple with sturdier or stranger lovers. The hard-boiled proprietress (Sarah Bright) has a not-so-secret upstairs rendezvous with the goofy and good-natured bus driver (Matt Thinnes). A defrocked, alcoholic professor and pedophile (sardonic Ted Hoerl) somehow restricts himself to a courtly flirtation with the literature-loving waitress (the wonderful Jillian Warden). The no-nonsense sheriff (Tim Kough) keeps Bo in line with tough talk about true love.

Then there’s the author’s surrogate, the loneliest lover. As Bo’s long-time sidekick and secret admirer, lean and lanky Virgil (a poignant Zach Bloomfield) is wise enough to surrender his place in the ranch after Bo wins Cherie’s heart. At the end, waiting for a bus to anywhere, Virgil (who all but represents the gay writer’s suppressed ardor for gorgeous Bo) is literally left out in the cold. But then it’s a wise play that won’t solve all its problems.

A good choice for a theater devoted to American classics, past and future, Bus Stop is wise in the maze of love and unpretentious enough not to insist on easy answers or obvious choices. Overall, Eclipse member Steve Scott’s staging respects its reticence and pliancy. If set designer Kevin Hagan’s meticulously grungy bus stop set supplies the realism, the rest should be honest make-believe.

Except that there’s a near-fatal flaw in Inge’s ointment. It’s the lack of conviction behind Inge’s late-winter affair-to-marriage. Their pell-mell fling should be what Goethe called an “elective affinity”: In the 1956 film starring Don Murray and Marilyn Monroe, it feels unforgettably natural and exuberantly unstoppable.

But not here: Apart from Scott’s color-blind casting (which requires a ton of suspension of disbelief, considering we’re in Kansas in the 1950s), Conway’s Bo is not the boyish charmer Inge fantasizes. We don’t glimpse the coltish impetuosity with which Bo takes her by storm. He hardly even smiles. And what we do see underlines a dated play’s worst anachronism: In the 2018 of the #MeToo movement, Bo’s crazy courtship looks like stalking and harassment: Conway’s glum persistence utterly undermines the credibility of their connection.

Happily, Pereira packs into insecure Cherie a suitcase full of crazy hopes: Here’s a girl as afraid to launch life as she’s eager for something big to happen. Sadly, there’s next to no chemistry between them — and several in the audience derisively laughed when they kissed. Whatever leveling of romantic opposites the director intended, well, here it goes much awry.

photos by Scott Dray

Bus Stop
Eclipse Theatre Company
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2
ends on August 19, 2018
for tickets, call 773.935.6875 or visit Eclipse

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ned R. Turner July 23, 2018 at 8:17 am

Dear Mr. Bommer:

After seeing Bus Stop and then reading your review, I couldn’t agree with you more. With directors aching to do color-blind casting, they take away the authenticity of the author’s work. There are plenty of plays where the cast members are supposed to be black. Not this play set in that time. In Carousel on Broadway now, how would a black man find a job as a caller at a carousel in the New England of the beginning of the last century? Mama Rose is going to be black, but her children are white..? Sorry, this makes no sense to my eyes, or brain.
You are a FINE reviewer and you will always be read by me.

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Lawrence Bommer July 24, 2018 at 7:03 am

Thanks for the vote of confidence on this tricky matter.

It seems we live in a time when critics get punished for simply reporting back what we saw.

There are too many invisible elephants in the parlor these days…

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