The bus trip, and I’m not talking about a wifi-enabled Fung Wah copycat to New York, has become something of a lost experience in this country. Planes and trains just aren’t the same. They lack the intimacy; you never find yourself just one of a handful of passengers. They don’t stop for meal and bathroom breaks. You don’t pass pilots smoking cigarettes as you board. You never find yourself on the side of road, broken down, waiting for another bus to pick you up. Their hubs don’t occupy basements and small town restaurants, and while America’s industrial ghost towns don’t have airports and train stations, they do have bus stops. When you do find yourself on a bus, among what is usually a motley cross-section of America, it’s a nostalgic experience, like being photoshopped into a still of It Happened One Night, though you’re unlikely to find yourself next to a spoiled débutante. More likely a stranger who carries their belongings in one of those bags comforters come in.
The Huntington’s technically perfect production of William Inge’s Bus Stop engenders a bus stop nostalgia far more wholesome and pleasing than one could find at a Greyhound depot these days. Everything from Inge’s characters to James Noone’s beautiful set, that should probably go into a museum when the show finishes its run, offers a pleasing American vintage. There is a darkness in Inge’s writing, but, at least in this production, the quaintness of these somewhat stock characters transcends that. The avuncular sheriff, the ditzy talentless lounge singer eyes wide with delusions of glamor, the peppy and naive after-school waitress with the smarts to get out of rural Kansas and her world-wise boss, the flamboyant and emotionally unintelligent cowboy and his plain talkin’ de facto guardian, and a career bus driver whose itinerant vocation precludes a home and a girl. Even the pedophile, here a transient scholar on a drinking binge, seems bygone next to today’s sex offenders.
Stick these characters in a rural Kansas diner for a night, as they wait for a blizzard to pass and the roads to be cleared, and you’re bound to get some stories; the night’s events as well as their backstories. But, the characters are recognizable enough that we don’t really need very much backstory. After all, they aren’t nearly as enigmatic (or tediously labyrinthine) as the characters of Lost. Their backstories are slowly filled in through perfectly staged monologues and conversations, but that information really only buttresses what we already know well enough. That our lounge chanteuse Cherie (Nicole Rodenburg) does indeed have a soft spot for her cowboy suitor (Noah Bean) who carried her aboard the bus, that our alcoholic scholar (Henry Stram) has some questionable (though not entirely malicious) intentions with young waitress Elma (Ronete Levenson), and that diner proprietor Grace (Karen MacDonald) finds companionship where she can. Our perspective is much like sheriff Will Master’s (confidently played by Adam LeFevre), where we’ve sort of seen it all before and are willing to go through the necessary motions (and emotions), but know better than any of the players how the game will end.
Director Nicholas Martin glosses over what darkness does exist in the text, what tragedies or vices of the characters’ pasts have left them here, a few of them despite having bus tickets in their pockets, with no place to go. Dr. Gerald Lyman’s alcoholism and professional failures could be more tragic, and his taste for young girls more cringe-inducing. Cherie’s childhood poverty and implied traumatic sexual history could have been more present. The same goes for Virgil Blessing’s (Stephen Lee Anderson) solitude and orphanhood and Grace’s separated marriage (though she still wears the ring, most of the time). And Elma seems here rather satisfied with her small town life, despite her cosmopolitan tastes and intelligence. If these had been teased out, we’d be left with a very different play. One that’s less (at least in modern productions) an exercise in nostalgia of when people still left their coats to dry on radiators and lived above diners and told girls to get Cs in schools to not scare boys away and spiked drinks in the hash houses of dry counties, and more a study of isolation and depravity.
Of course, that latter reading wouldn’t take into account the play’s relatively happy ending, where four people find some kind of love and nobody gets hurt, at least no more than they already were. And I’m not sure which reading would better jibe with Inge’s own biography. The Huntington’s production seeks out the love in the text and the meditations thereon. So much of what the characters talk about and find and reckon with, is love in one form or another. Lyman’s love is twisted and perverted. Grace’s is hardened and realistic. Elma’s has yet to mature and is rooted in Romeo and Juliet rather than experience. Bo’s is naively arrogant and rooted in who-knows-what, but he’s a quick study. Cherie’s lacks confidence and is rather transparently defensive. And Virgil’s is willfully forfeited, perhaps even sacrificed. There’s a lot of talk about what love is and what it should be by people with and without it. People who’ve had it and lost it. Others who’ve never had it. People of different levels of experience, and all of them in different emotional places, but tossed together here for the night, so that they might run into it. Notably missing is, of course, Inge’s own homosexual perspective–one that could be read into the play, but not without significant liberty.
We can be happy the ART is where it is, because Lebow and MacDonald belong here. As does the rest of the cast in this lush, beautiful comedy that’s the kind of thing the Huntington has been doing best lately. I’m hoping the rest of the season holds up.