Playwright William Inge is considered a quintessential midwestern writer. Born in Kansas, he worked in Kansas and Missouri, and died (by suicide) in Hollywood. His 1955 play Bus Stop is one of the plays that cemented his reputation. It’s set in a diner at the edge of a small Kansas town, where cross-country buses stop to pick up and discharge passengers. Eclipse Theatre’s production is directed by Steve Scott, a notable Chicago theater artist and longtime Eclipse ensemble member.
On a stormy winter night in the 1950s, some of the roads are closed and the Denver bus is stuck at the crossroads overnight. The wind and snow are fierce and “March is comin’ in like a lion,” as several comment. The bus passengers join the locals and, for a few hours, create a world of their own. The cast includes the local sheriff, the diner owner and a waitress, the bus driver and a few passengers. The story explores a few relationships, but none of them seem genuine. Despite a capable cast and a star director, there’s a lack of energy and tension in the production, which makes it flat and unexciting.
The café is owned by Grace (Sarah Bright), a “grass widow” (a married woman whose husband has left) and has an eye for Carl (Matt Thinnes), the bus driver, who returns her interest. Elma (Jillian Warden), a smart but naïve high school student, waits tables at the diner.
Cherie, a self-described chanteuse (Daniella Pereira), rushes in from the bus. She’s trying to escape from the man who bought her bus ticket. Bo, the cowboy (Anthony Conway), fell in love with Cherie when he heard her sing at the Blue Dragon nightclub in Kansas City and decided he would marry her—whether she wanted to marry him or not. She asks sheriff Will (Tim Kough) to protect her from Bo’s clutches, but then she’s not so sure.
Also entering the world of the corner café is Dr. Gerald Lyman (Ted Hoerl), a classic literary drunk. He has had many teaching jobs and several wives and is too fond of rye whisky. His poetry charms Elma. Passing the hours through the night, she organizes a talent show, featuring Cherie, Bo’s buddy Virgil (Zach Bloomfield) on the guitar, with Dr. Lyman and Elma performing the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. It doesn’t go well. Later, it turns out that Dr. Lyman has a checkered past.
Eclipse Theatre’s production of Bus Stop has many ingredients for a successful production. Inge’s 1955 script has interesting characters and storyline and it has had many successful productions in the past, including the 1956 film starring Marilyn Monroe. As I said, the cast is capable but no one actor is really outstanding. The relationships are not believable, especially the one between Cherie and Bo. I had the feeling that the cast hadn’t had enough time together to gel as an ensemble.
Kevin Hagan’s scenic design and lighting set up a realistic street corner café in a small town in Kansas (although it’s a little too pretty and not rundown enough for the café that Inge describes).
Bus Stop can be viewed as part of that familiar story form: pilgrims meeting on the road, familiar through the history of literature from Chaucer and Boccaccio to Kerouac and William Least Heat-Moon. Bus Stop is also a portrait of Americana, which a writer in the Guardian described as “an Edward Hopper painting with dialogue” after a 2011 UK revival. Inge also wrote Picnic, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Come Back, Little Sheba, A Loss of Roses, Natural Affection and other plays, screenplays and novels.
Bus Stop by Eclipse Theatre Company continues at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, through August 19. Running time is two hours including one intermission. Tickets are $25-35 for performances Thursday-Sunday. Bus Stop is part of Eclipse’s 2018 William Inge Season, which opened with Natural Affection and will close with The Dark at the Top of the Stairs in November.