Well, Toto, we are in Kansas now—at least for the duration of this reverent revival of ‘Bus Stop’ by William Inge. The Aldersgate Church Community Theatre does a lovely job of bringing this story to life, even if the material does seem a bit dated. It’s an evening of nostalgia and some very funny bits.
This is a solid cast doing solid work.
The show takes place in a café at a bus stop in March 1995; the bus is stopped overnight because the highway is blocked by snow. A disparate group of passengers is stranded overnight at the café, manned by the owner Grace and her waitress, Elma. Over the course of the next few hours, truths will come out and facades dropped, as real human connections are made. A romance between two wounded souls will blossom, and some hard lessons are learned.
Since it is in the 1950s, women have little agency or prospects. This is embodied by Cherie (Emily Golden), a chanteuse, who is on the bus only because Bo Decker (John Paul Odle), who owns a ranch in Montana, had been visiting Kansas City with his main hired hand and father figure, Virgil Blessing (Joel Durgavich), and had fallen in love with the young woman. He is so inept at relationships that he unilaterally decides they will be married after a night together, and he, in her words, “picks her up and throws her on the bus.”
As the good-hearted sheriff, Will Masters (Andrew Cannady), points out, she managed to have time to pack a suitcase. This observation comes after Cherie seeks his protection from this young man who is kidnapping her. Cherie is a fragile, delicate, damaged soul who has had a hard young life and is panicked at the thought of leaving the big city, even though she is a singer in a dive bar near the stockyards.
Dr. Gerald Lyman (Thomas Salmon) is an alcoholic who can’t stop despoiling young girls; he meets and is enchanted by Elma (Madeline Byrd), the high school waitress who yearns for a college education and a wider view of the world. His world-weary and self-deprecation touch her heart and she seems intent on saving him. She is naïve and trusting, and eventually, that coltish grace brings him to his senses and he gently fobs her off.
Grace Hoyland (Elizabeth Geplogle), the owner of the restaurant, is a woman who very much is comfortable with herself and has accepted her life. She takes her pleasures, discreetly, where she can, and Carl(Richard Isaacs), the bus driver, is the lucky recipient of her largesse. She is a woman without a mean bone in her body, and deep compassion and tolerance for the human condition.
Virgil rounds out the cast as the sidekick of Bo. He is older and half in love with Cherie himself; but his caring is foremost for Bo. He makes a hard decision at the end, after he helps Bo grow up a little more.
Bo is so young and so unschooled in relationships (he has 6,000 head of cattle and pigs, chickens and sheep, and horses, which he evidently understands well; humans, not so much) that he just barrels over anyone standing in his way. With the help of the sheriff (some tough love there in the form of a beat-down) and Virgil, he learns to look beyond himself and court Cherie.
The cast does a lovely job with this chestnut. These strangers are at a crossroads, and the enforced stopover becomes the fulcrum that fuels changes in their lives. Durgavich as Virgil and Replogle as Grace bring a lovely depth to their roles, which are the least well drawn in the cast. Golden portrays Cherie’s fragility with bravado, and Byrd’s Elma is so very young and artless that you want to take her aside and give her a stern warning about the lecherous Lyman.
Eleanore Tapscott directs the play with good pacing and spot-on performances. She institutes some lovely sight gags too, as when Bo simply scoops up Cherie, throws her over his shoulder and starts to leave the café. As he is surrounded by other men attempting to stop him, and he whirls around, watching them step smartly out of the way of Cherie’s flailing feet and hands is truly funny. It’s a nice bit of physical comedy.
The set is beautifully designed by Matt Liptak and painted by Stacey Becker and Liptak. It evokes the coldness of later winter in Kansas and the warmth of the café. When the characters go in and out, the well-painted backdrops give a glimpse of the snowy, flat, unforgiving landscape. Alan Wray’s sound design is well modulated and adds to the chill you can almost feel when the outer doors open. And kudos to the dialect coaches (Delores Baisden and Cheryl Sinsabaugh); they get right the flat vowels of the Midwest speakers and the warmer Southern tones of Cherie, and the slightly-affected Eastern drawl of Dr. Lyman.
This is a solid cast doing solid work. The play steps back in time to an era on the edge of some big societal changes, and surprisingly, does it without judgment. For an audience in 2019, one of the big takeaways is that people are complicated and need connection, and sometimes need some help getting there.
Running Time: Approximately two hours with a 15 minute intermission.
“Bus Stop” runs from March 29 – April 14, 2019, at Aldersgate Church Community Center, Alexandria, VA. For more information, please click here.