BUS STOP (BRT): A place of isolation

Excerpted by kind permission from The Dance Journal

Bruce Sabath, Jessica Wagner, Mark Jacoby and Linda Elizabeth in BUS STOP. Photo by Mark Garvin
Bruce Sabath, Jessica Wagner, Mark Jacoby and Linda Elizabeth in BUS STOP. Photo by Mark Garvin

All of the individual stories the wayfarers tell in William Inge’s BUS STOP come through clearly in Susan D. Atkinson’s production of the ’50s classic at Bristol Riverside Theatre. You get a good sense of a broad cross-section of America gathered together at the Kansas diner for a mid-trip respite of snacks, coffee, and toilet needs: lonely travelers intersecting briefly at one of life’s waystations. Atkinson and her cast have an assured feel for the characters involved, but this BUS STOP creates no atmosphere or mood, so the void the audience feels is theatrical and not social or psychological.

Atkinson takes an episodic approach to BUS STOP, but the production blend the characters stories effectively. Even the central story of a randy young cowboy, Bo (Grant Struble) abducting an even younger stripper, Cherie (Jessica Wagner, in a role played by Marilyn Monroe in the 1956 movie), is literal and unexciting. Atkinson’s cast is artful enough to hold your attention and keep you listening intently. But the show only shows an unusual collection of people, each of whom needs some change, direction, or luck in their lives. It never touches the emotions.

In Inge’s bus stop, Grace’s is a place of isolation. It would barely be noticed, let alone be profitable, if the bus company didn’t use the Kansas town and the diner, to give passengers a rest. One the night Cherie and her travel companions arrive, the depot is more than usually cut off from civilization by a snow storm. Bo, the cowboy, age 21, spent days winning rodeo prizes and nights watching Cherie perform while in Kansas City. The story of Bo and Cherie, which Inge uses as a centerpiece and a leitmotiv that links and offsets other travelers’ tales, has fireworks written all over it. At Bristol, these pyrotechnics don’t exactly fizzle — You see and grasp the dynamic between Bo and Cherie. — but they don’t soar or excite either.

“Bus Stop” is rich, and Atkinson mined only want is visible on the surface. Struble and Wagner have infinite opportunities to sparkle and win the audience’s hearts as Bo and Cherie, but they miss the subtleties in their characters, and they create no electricity. The same emotional evenness pervades Atkinson’s production. Linda Elizabeth (as Elma) and Barbara McCulloh (as Grace) are the only performers that overcome it, probably because their characters are at home and rooted in reality that comes across the Bristol stage.

Among the rest of the cast Mike Boland is forthright and solid as the sheriff; Mark Jacoby deftly delivers a stock academic in Gerald Lyman; Bruce Sabath earns high marks for his guitar playing in Elma’s talent show. David Sitler is amiable and on the mark as the bus driver.

Nels Anderson’s set is as realistic as Inge’s play and looks right while also being highly functional. Linda Bee Stockton does a fine job in choosing costume, especially the waitress uniforms donned by Grace and Elma. She could have been a little more generous about having Struble’s open his shirt to look a tad more primitive as he lusts after Cherie. Rick Sordelet stages an excellent fight between Bo and the sheriff. Read the full review >>

[Bristol Riverside Theatre – 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA] September 28-October 18, 2015; brtstage.org.

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