Sunday, November 4, 2018

Bus Stop by William Inge (Empty Space 2018)

Bus Stop is one of those plays that you know exists, at least in the form of a Marilyn Monroe film which borrows the name, setting, and very little of the plot. We decided to go see it at local theater The Empty Space this weekend. William Inge, who was once heralded as the next Tennessee Williams, had a few hits, but not many after the 1950s, wrote this one in 1955, and set it the quintessential 1950s location: the diner. The idea is a bit of a classic too: random strangers are thrown together in a single location by bad weather.

There are eight total characters, and none of them are minor. Each has his own story, and role to play in the drama. The characters are divided up into the locals, and the strangers. Grace is the owner of said diner, and a “grass widow,” as she describes herself, meaning a woman whose husband is away most of the time. She employs Elma, a naive high school girl. Since the bus route stops in town, and the diner is about all there is, Grace knows the bus drivers really well. In some cases, extremely well, wink and nod. Carl is the driver on duty at the time of the action. Will, the local sheriff, is kind of an Andy Griffith sort, but in a town that isn’t as whitewashed and “wholesome” as the fictional Mayberry.

The bus contains four strangers, on their way west. Gerald, a former professor, is, it turns out, was run out of Kansas City for his attempts at seducing young girls. He is also urbane, smooth, and a lush. Young rancher Bo is accompanied on his way back to his Montana ranch by the other two characters. Virgil is an older farmhand, who has kind of taken care of Bo after he was orphaned. He is the voice of reason and experience in the play - although Will plays that role to a degree as well. The final character is Cherie, a young lounge singer who has had a hard and promiscuous past. She finds herself dragged against her will by Bo, who is convinced that since they had sex (his first time), they were going to marry.

There are, therefore, three romantic/sexual pairings with their own tensions. Grace and Carl, who get more than the customary 20 minute quickie. Elma, the object of Gerald’s less-than-honorable advances, and Bo and Cherie, whose story arc probably played better in the 50s than it does now. These three threads to the story are interwoven, and each comments on love and human nature.

The two young characters are the ones with the most to learn. Bo needs to figure out how to treat women like humans, not as property. He needs to figure out how to apologize for the first time in his life. And he, for the first time in his life, loses a fight, and has to learn that he can’t always get what he wants.

Elma gets a crash course in real life. Older men who seem a bit too interested and nice usually aren’t looking for an adopted child. Not everyone is happily married like her parents. People have affairs that are sexual but not romantic. Domestic violence and coercion are real. Life is complicated.

There are, as I hinted, a number of things about the play that seem a bit dated. In the era of #metoo, the tolerance of coercion and threats seems an off note. Kind of like much of the plot of The Taming of the Shrew, come to think of it. Both plays are worth performing in part because of these dynamics. We like to pretend that we are better - and we are in some ways - but we also have a long way to go in overcoming the sexism of the past. There were also a number of lines that assumed a certain gender essentialism - fairly benign, but still wince-worthy.  

On the other hand, a lot of this play felt relevant and modern. The problem of old (usually) men preying on vulnerable young people certainly hasn’t gone away. (Hmm, thinking of people from Bill Gothard to Doug Phillips to Roy Moore…) The messiness unhappy marriages remains a timeless theme, as does infidelity. And, in its own way, the problem of men who feel entitled to women. Bo would play well as an “incel” these days. He is (or considers himself) good looking, reasonably wealthy, educated enough to read and write, and as he insists, “kinda tidy.” He deserves the woman of his choice, right?

The play combines serious moments with humor, and at the moments of greatest discomfort, shifts to a gentler, philosophical bent. In this sense, I think it was a good one for the kids (who went with me), as it didn’t go over the line, but also looked some difficult issues square in the face.

My favorite line in the play is by Virgil, who may be quiet and soft spoken, but probably knows more than everyone but Will combined. Bo is stewing over his rejection by Cherie, and Will’s intervention preventing him from coercing her.

VIRGIL: ...Now why don’t ya go over to the counter and have yourself a the perfessor.
BO: I never did drink, and I ain’t gonna let no woman drive me to it.
VIRGIL: Ya don’t drink. Ya don’t smoke or chew. Ya oughta have some bad habits to rely on when things with women go wrong.

The kids liked the terrible rendition of the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene, with the drunk and overacting Gerald paired with the not particularly talented Elma. They also liked Bo’s insistence on raw hamburgers, and his ludicrously long food order.

The acting was quite good in this production - it was all Empty Space regulars, and since each part was significant, each actor got his or her chance to shine. The actors seem to have found parts that fit their preferred styles.

Cory Rickard went with her signature sassy and flippant style in portraying Grace. It came off as both worldly wise, but a little goofy and unpredictable. It has to be well over a decade that I have been enjoying Rickard’s work in local theater, and I always smile to see her in a cast list. (The Two Gentlemen of Verona earlier this year, and as Friar Lawrence last year come to mind.) 

 Carl (Jared Cantrell) and Grace (Cory Rickard)

Victoria Lusk has played a number of memorable characters over the years, from the hilarious Launce (in Two Gentlemen) to the sexy Inga in Young Frankenstein. Her short stature worked well for the teen character, and she certainly made the balcony scene hilarious. She’s another actor that I love to see on a cast list because she makes any part she is given come alive.

Speaking of Frankenstein, the last time I saw Steve Evans, it was as the Monster. I would not have recognized him in this play - the makeup does make a difference. Playing the straight man is never easy, but Evans was thoroughly credible as the good natured, even tempered, and wise sheriff. Our real life law enforcement could sometimes take a lesson in how to defuse a volatile situation. I also loved the bit near the end where he casually mentions Carl’s boots left outside Grace’s apartment. It wasn’t mean-spirited, but it was a good dig. 

 Will (Steve Evans) confronts Bo (Carlos Vera)

Jared Cantrell has been a couple of eccentric characters lately: Uncle Jack in Dancing at Lughnasa, and Teddy in Arsenic and Old Lace. Carl was obviously not as over-the-top, but it required some skill at getting the bus driver persona right. Which he did: I half expect to see him driving the GET one of these days.

Trayvon Trimble Fletcher (he has used various combinations since his debut as Othello) brought his understated style to the part of Virgil. Soft spoken, homespun, and a man of few words but deeper thoughts. 

 Virgil (Trayvon Trimble Fletcher)

For the part of Bo, it was pretty inevitable that Carlos Vera would end up playing the part. He has been in far too many local productions over the past few years to name, but he brings a kind of simmering rage and aggression to most of his parts. The Empty Space is a small venue, but he can fill larger ones as easily. I won’t blame Vera for this, but he was more believable as the violent and controlling Bo than as the softer, gentler version. But that’s the fault of the script - it is too unbelievable to think that someone would change that fast or that the change would be permanent.

As the former professor, Daniel Korth was a bit disturbing. That’s a compliment. Korth is one of my favorite actors, and was brilliant in both The Woman In Black and in Angels In America. Korth just sounds naturally sincere, urbane, charming, likeable, and genuine. He’s super at doing that. But then, you watch him putting the sincere charming moves on a teen girl, and...ick. Which is the point. It was far too easy to see how Gerald kept getting these young girls - and that too is true to life. 

 Gerald (Daniel Korth) puts the moves on Elma (Victoria Lusk)

Finally, there is Ellie Sivesind, who has taken over for her husband Brian as executive director of TES. (Brian is teaching theater at Bakersfield College, and doing a fine job, so I imagine he is busy.) Ellie has a knack for playing innocent characters - hence Desdemona in Othello and Harper in Angels in America. She has a rather young and innocent looking face, and portrays vulnerability well. That’s an art as much as playing a stronger female. I enjoyed her work in this one as well. 

 Cherie (Ellie Sivesind)

Really, looking at that list again, just a solid list of reliably excellent local talent, which is what brought this play alive.

I should also mention that my youngest was quite impressed with the set. TES is a small venue, so space is at a premium. Nevertheless, they had a diner with a counter and kitchen and everything. And real food. I liked all the vintage details - my wife knows her antiques, and I have gotten a bit of an education about period glassware and similar items. This is standard fare for TES: small space, modest budgets, but careful attention to detail, high artistic values, and strong acting.

Bus Stop runs two more weekends, so locals may wish to make reservations and go see it. for more information.

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