Performances Drive ‘Bus Stop’

Huntington’s interpretation of classic Inge play serves as captivating character study with masterful stagecraft

Bus Stop
Courtesy T. Charles Erickson

Grace (Karen MacDonald) shares her wisdom with Elma (Ronete Levenson) in William Inge’s “Bus Stop,” which runs through October 17 in a Huntington Theatre Company production.

The wise words of the Bard printed above the stage of the Boston University Theatre read: “To hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature.” In keeping with such a motto, William Inge’s “Bus Stop”—currently playing at that theater—successfully holds a mirror up to the human natures of desire and love.

“Bus Stop,” which runs through October 17 in a production by the Huntington Theatre Company, sees an assortment of strangers get stranded at a diner during a fierce snowstorm in Kansas City. Over the course of one night, the group forms a bond through sharing stories and revealing their hidden secrets, ultimately leaving the diner with new outlooks on life. Nicholas Martin’s direction produces an array of comedic moments delivered by a tightly-knit ensemble who thoroughly understand their characters. “Bus Stop” delivers heartwarming relationships, dry wit and humor, and a fair amount of scandal and glamour in an energetic production.

The show is filled with fighting, laughter, heartache, and the search for love. At the diner owned by Grace Hoylard (Karen MacDonald), her young employee Elma Duckworth (Ronete Levenson) dreams about growing up and discovering the world outside Kansas City. But that world is brought directly to her doorstep—or more precisely to her bus stop—as a university professor, a nightclub dancer, and a pair of cowboys get stranded for the night.

Sheriff Will Masters (Adam LeFevre) acts as the peacekeeper between the boisterous cowboy Bo Decker (Noah Bean) and the illustrious nightclub entertainer Cherie (Nicole Rodenburg) who he intends to make his wife. In the midst of these confused young lovers is Bo’s old companion, Virgil Blessing (Stephen Lee Anderson), who serves as both a father figure and a friend to Bo. While Elma finds an intellectual companion in the slightly inappropriate—and rather intoxicated—Dr. Gerald Lyman (Henry Stram), Grace finds someone to fill the void left by her ever-absent husband in the form of bus driver Carl (Will LeBow).

Over three short acts, the ensemble cast quickly establishes the fears and hopes of their characters, as it becomes apparent that the stranded strangers have more in common than they might have first thought. As Cherie begins to understand the meaning of love and marriage, she confides her fears in Elma, who has equal reservations about being intimate with men.

Rodenburg’s relationship with Levenson hits the right level of intimacy as the two young women share with each other their views on love. When Rodenburg toys with Levenson by saying, “Maybe you have to find out for yourself it doesn’t exist,” the sincerity in Levenson’s voice as she responds, “I hope it does” allows for a moving moment between two very different young women.

Levenson’s relationship with Stram, her on-stage intellectual counterpart, is intentionally awkward at times and makes for a strong representation of male lust over naïve youth. Yet, Stram strikes the balance between letcher and loner; in the end, a pitiable character. In a particularly poignant moment, Stram delivers a scene from “Romeo and Juliet” where he falters at the discussion of love and then comically passes out. Here, Stram nails the emotion of a divorced man unable to settle in life.

Stram’s performance is rivaled only by that of Rodenburg, whose accent, demeanor, and gazes of amazement and adoration create a believably misguided young woman. Rodenburg’s competency in handling the realization that Bo’s declarations of love are sincere leads her to effectively portray the development of gradually accepting his romantic advances.

Bean equally shows a change in understanding what it means to be in love. Although he struggles to fully portray the boundless youth of a 21-year old, his moments of immaturity and misunderstanding are comedic nonetheless.

This action throughout the play is enhanced by a set which is innovative, creative, and makes use of the stage space to the greatest ability. James Noone’s scenic design incorporates an authentic diner interior, a snow-filled road, and an exterior snowstorm which gradually subsides as the show progresses. The space dividing the bar and the diner creates additional opportunity for interaction and comedic moments, especially when Cherie climbs onto the counter to deliver her nightclub performance.

Although the romantic climax of the play is not a surprise (even the characters acknowledge this fact, as MacDonald declares, “I knew this was gonna happen”), the production is still emotionally satisfying. What really resonates is the journey each individual character undergoes as the night unfolds. The cast successfully portrays these believable individuals who—despite the risk of being clichés—have a depth with which it becomes possible to sympathize. As the lights of the diner switch off for the night, it feels as if these very real characters live beyond the realm of the play.

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