Sunday, September 17, 2006

opening-weekend review of *Bus Stop*

at Interplayers through Oct. 1

In the unlikely setting of an all-night diner in Kansas, *Bus Stop* presents a dark night of the soul.

And in a production laced with comedy, with searing moments of loneliness — and with some weaknesses — Interplayers is putting on a show that takes mundane materials and weaves them into an examination of why it is we think we deserve love, and how poor we are at extending it.

Until well into the wee hours, William Inge’s classic play dissects three couples: the impetuous young’uns, a cowboy and a nightclub singer; a pair of working-class sexagenarians; and an old lecher who has his eyes all over an unsuspecting teenage girl. Everybody in this diner is placing an order for a main dish of sex with a side order of love and affection. Couples grow apart and come back together; some decide to shoot for the moon; others determine that parting is best. A couple of outsiders — a sheriff and a laconic sidekick — stand outside the love-play but reinforce Inge’s insistence on our shared loneliness. A few hours in a snowstorm, and people’s lives change forever: It’s Chekhov on the prairie.

Director Scott Alan Smith’s ensemble is mostly strong, and most of the moments of loneliness and hope are delineated. Jack Bannon delivers a truly exceptional and multi-faceted performance as an alcoholic former English professor who’s full of lust for young girls and loathing for himself. Damon Abdallah, with his eyes downcast and his gruff voice deepened, rides his portrayal of a leathery old cowboy all the way to the play’s chief symbol of genuine but unfulfilled love. Kelly Eviston-Quinnett, her angular limbs flailing about with eagerness for a good man and her shoulders scrunched with the weight of all the disappointing ones she’s known, pulls off a blonde-hick characterization that teeters on the edge of stereotype without going over.

But some misdirection, some mugging for laughs, and a central cowboy character who’s just too tame undercut an otherwise strong production of William Inge’s classic play.

As Bo, the impetuous cowboy who has lassoed Cherie the singer into a bus-trip honeymoon and abduction, Jonathan Rau needs to command the stage from his first entrance. Rau simply doesn’t have enough exuberance in the part.

Bo’s an open wound, full of needs, full of himself, full of the assumption that other people will do his bidding and learn to like it. But with his shifty eyes, tentative steps and sometimes flat delivery, Rau doesn’t present any naked or untutored desire. By the time he angrily kicks down a chair, it’s too late in the play to convince us that Bo’s capable of dangerous outbursts. The shuffling feet, the sideways glances searching for approval — these gestures serve Rau well in the final reconciliation scene. Inge has also written some complexity into his prairie firecracker: When it comes to romance, Bo turns out to be an idealist. Rau has a lot to work with in the role, in other words, but he doesn’t deliver much.

Set designer Desma Murphy has created a believable refuge from the blizzard outside. The tables in Grace’s Diner may be mismatched and dirt may be ground into the cracks in the checkerboard floor, but the ketchup bottles on the counter are lined up just so, and the donuts under the glass dome are only a day or two old, no more. It’d be a clean and well-lighted place — suitable for examining the characters’ inmost souls — if only it were better lit.

Director Smith, unfortunately, has guided light designer Brian Ritter into the pitfall of repeated, distracting light changes, as if we’re not capable of switching our focus from the couple talking up front back to those people whispering behind the counter. In an otherwise realistic play, the light shifts call way too much attention themselves.

As the older waitress and owner of this joint, Ellen Travolta catches Grace’s comedy but fumbles the sadness. Travolta’s good at gag lines, and she brightens endearingly when her special guy, a round-bellied bus driver, comes lumbering into the diner. But sometimes the timing's off; sometimes the loneliness isn't apparent. Less girlishness for the easy laughs — it must be tempting, because playgoers will titter over the idea that a woman in her 60s might still want to have sex — and more inwardness would've rounded both the characterization and the play's assertion that we're all driven to extremes sometimes in our loneliness-avoidance.

Saturday night’s audience loved what they had witnessed, and it’s certainly true that *Bus Stop,* in performance, can be both quite funny and quite sobering. The final dual image of loneliness felt like a classic moment in American drama embodied, and one that everybody ought to see.

There’s a lot of loneliness in bus stations and all-night diners, after all; even if some of his characters work out a comic ending for themselves, Inge isn’t going to let us forget that.

And if you don’t think despair can touch the risk-takers in this play — or doesn’t carry much bite — then chew on this: Albert Salmi, the actor who had created the role of Bo the cowboy in the original Broadway production of Bus Stop 35 years before, died with his wife in 1990 in an apparent murder-suicide. Right here in Spokane.

The Thursday, Sept. 21, edition of *The Inlander* will present a revised version of this review, with further kudos going to Bannon, Eviston-Quinnett and Abdallah; Christine Cresswell as Elma the naïve young waitress; Maynard Villers as Will the sheriff; and William Rhodes as Carl the bus driver.


At September 23, 2006 7:51 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I caught the Saturday matinee. While the audience around me obviously enjoyed the performance, I was sorely disappointed. The director and cast have chosen to play this piece as a farce. It is not. This play was written by William Inge, not Neil Simon. Inge is know as an acutely insightful chronicler of human life in all its stoic desperation and bittersweet promises. He wrote of people constantly struggling to connect -- to themselves, to each other, to the painful plight their lives have become. His characters are not larger than life; they are ordinary people, people we know, people much like ourselves. They are people who can't help wanting what everyone wants - to love and be loved, to set aside their aloneness, to truly find a home, not just for an hour or a night but for as long as it takes to find true happiness.
The dynamics of this well structured play allows for each character to express their dreams, hopes and their loneliness. We should be able to see their desperation and yearning. The play is filled with gripping and fluid dialogue. Dialogue meant to be delivered honestly, not with flippancy. To be light and frivolous, as this director has told his players to be, is to lose the pathos that should be generated by actors playing these empathetic characters.
I am sorry, but our visiting director missed the point of this piece and in doing so has done a grievous disservice to the playwriting genius that was William Inge.

At September 28, 2006 6:24 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Posted one. You didn't like it.


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