Huntington’s ‘Bus Stop’ is combustible work
One of William Inge’s strengths as a playwright was his ability to see the dramatic possibilities lurking in the corners of 1950s small-town lives, just waiting to erupt as soon as a combustible element — the young female boarder in “Come Back, Little Sheba,’’ the handsome drifter in “Picnic’’— was introduced to the mix.
In Inge’s “Bus Stop,’’ a comedy with a melancholy undertow that is now being given an improbably engaging production by the Huntington Theatre Company under the direction of Nicholas Martin, that element arrives in the form of a blustering cowboy named Bo Decker (Noah Bean).
Why improbably? Because there is much in “Bus Stop’’ that is dated when seen through contemporary eyes, beginning with its decidedly problematic protagonist. It’s not because Bo favors locutions like “purty’’ and “critter’’ and wears a belt buckle approximately the size of Jupiter, but rather that, after falling head over boot heels in love with Cherie (Nicole Rodenburg), a blond nightclub singer, he ignores her protestations that she doesn’t want to marry him and herds her onto a westbound bus, headed for his ranch in Montana.
At one point in the Huntington production, after discovering that Cherie had been planning to give him the slip, Bo chases her around a diner; at another, he throws her over his shoulder.
Yet Martin, in a return to the theater company where he was formerly the artistic director, has drawn a performance from Bean so carefully modulated that Bo mostly comes across as bumptious and clueless but essentially well-meaning, rather than a candidate for a restraining order (in contrast to Don Murray, who played Bo in the dreadful 1956 film version of “Bus Stop’’ that starred Marilyn Monroe).
Having spent his entire life on a ranch, Bo constantly struggles to find the right connections between feelings, words, and actions. A similar sense of perpetually shifting emotional ground is communicated by Rodenburg, whose Cherie is clearly very attracted to Bo, even as she is alarmed by his over-the-top behavior.
The diner in question is located in a small Kansas town, and it is there that the bus passengers are forced to spend the night when a blizzard hits. Because this is a play by the ever-schematic Inge, they are also forced to confront a few hard truths about themselves and their lives.
That emphatically includes the drunken, poetry-spouting Dr. Lyman (Henry Stram), who seems to be paying an inordinate amount of attention to Elma (Ronete Levenson), the high school girl working behind the lunch counter. Stram effectively conveys the depths of Dr. Lyman’s self-loathing once he realizes what a bottom-feeder he really is. Levenson is both amusing and poignant as Elma, but (in another problem presented by Inge’s script) would a teenage girl really react with flattered pleasure, as Elma does, to learn that a middle-aged creep is interested in her?
Rounding out the ensemble are the diner’s feisty proprietor, Grace (Karen MacDonald); Bo’s mentor, the guitar-strumming Virgil (Stephen Lee Anderson); the cocky bus driver, Carl (Will LeBow), who sees the blizzard-enforced delay as a chance to take his flirtatious relationship with Grace to the next level; and Will (Adam LeFevre), the hulking sheriff.
MacDonald plays Grace in a starched blue waitress uniform, a Midwestern accent, and a demeanor both saucy and wistful. MacDonald is not onstage nearly enough, but she wrings every ounce of meaning out of every line she delivers. Even a line as banal as “I don’t care for cheese’’ sounds funny when MacDonald says it. And she communicates the loneliness at the heart of Inge’s work, however comedic it may be, with a single look.
Harold Clurman, who directed the 1955 Broadway premiere of “Bus Stop,’’ wrote in his indispensable book “On Directing’’ (1972) that “Inge, like the early O’Neill, is one of those playwrights whose work acquires a body on the stage not always apparent in the ‘book.’ ’’ For all the contradictions and head-scratching moments of “Bus Stop,’’ this Huntington production suggests that Clurman was right.
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.