Berkshire Theatre Festival

Bus Stop, a CurtainUp Berkshire Review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review

Bus Stop
I disapprove of all my life-- but I'd live it all over again. ---Dr. Lyman, the boozy, lecherous philosopher who has some of Bus Stop's best speeches.
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Logan Marshall-Green as Bo  & Elizabeth Banks as Cherie  in Bus Stop
Logan Marshall-Green & Elizabeth Banks
(Photo: Richard Feldman)
Williamstown Theater Festival's new artistic director Roger Rees opted to launch the Festival's first season in its grand new home with three British revivals, but shepherded by American directors. However, to end the season he did a turnaround: A distinctly American play William Inge's Bus Stop, directed by British director Will Frears.

The people who've expressed a lack of enthusiasm for seeing a fifty-year-old play best remembered as a film starring Marilyn Monroe by a playwright who though once regarded as one of America's premier dramatists is now rarely produced are in for a pleasant surprise. Thanks to Frears perky direction, exemplary performances and expert stagecraft, Bus Stop remains a solidly entertaining slice of Americana, a colorful portrait of how Americans Midwesterners looked and sounded in the 1950s. It can be lumped with a whole genre of plays in which a restaurant or bar becomes a gathering place for a diverse group of people to air their deeper and surface concerns , either regularly (as in The Iceman Cometh, The Night of the Iguana or even sitcoms like Cheers), or as a result of a disaster like the snowstorm that strands Bus Stop's passengers at a road stop diner. Yet, this production adds up to an enjoyably fresh theater experience.

Frears has chosen to move the time frame to 1950, five years earlier than its premiere in 1955 when a reference to Marlon Brando in the 1953 Julius Caesar would have been accurate. The director's reasoning is that this marks the century's midpoint, between a still innocent and hopeful post World War II year and the beginning of wrong moves at home and abroad. But as the shift in dates seems unnecessary since and the color-blind casting of Carl the bus driver and Cowboy Bo's fatherly sidekick Virgil is something of a stretch given the Midwestern mores of the period. But why quibble when these actors, like everyone in the cast, are so spectacularly good and there are many directorial touches to add to the pleasures of this production.

Laura Heisler and Elizabeth Marvel in Bus Stop
Laura Heisler as Elma & Elizabeth Marvel as Grace
(Photo: Richard Feldman)
Essentially Inge uses the bus-stopping snowstorm to draw brief in-depth portraits of the four stranded bus passengers, the bus driver and the three locals-- the diner owner, her waitress and the town sheriff. What we have in the way of a plot centers on the rocky romance of Cherie, sexy blonde nightclub singer who escaped her hardscrabble Ozark childhood for a more independent life and Bo, the wild young cowboy who has made her his unwilling fiancee. It takes a night of being locked up with a group of strangers for these young people to discover the difference between sex and tenderness so that they can tap into their still existing sweetness and innocence and have their one-night stand meeting really turn into something meaningful and lasting.

To counterpoint the prematurely experienced Cherie we have booksmart Elma. She's not much younger than Cherie but still naive enough to almost get herself into trouble with Professor Lyman, an older man who is on that bus to escape from past difficulties resulting from his taste for whiskey and young girls.

Frears and his able cast make Takeshi Kata's authentic diner bristle with life throughout the briskly paced, intermissionless hour and forty minutes. Elizabeth Banks, a neighborhood girl (she grew up in Pittsfield), is as prettyand curvacious a Cherie as you could wish for as well as believably desperate and vulnerable. Logan Marshall-Green is a wild and crazy Bo -- but not too much so for a believable transformation after he gets his comeuppance courtesy of Sheriff Will Masters (Daniel Oreskes taking a break from his usual role as a heavy, to play the Sheriff with endearing Gary Cooper-like authority). Another likeable and mature character is Virgil, the father figure in Bo's life (played with quiet dignity by Leon Addison Brown).

Elizabeth Marvel once again lives up to her name as the diner's owner. Her Grace Hoylard brings to mind a bunch of tough self-sufficient women played in many B-Movies by the likes of Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino and Eve Arden. John Douglas Thompson as Carl is charismatic enough to make one see why Grace would leave Elma in charge long enough for her to ask Carl to her apartment to effect a quick cure for her "headache."

Good as everyone is, if I had to pick a favorite, it would be Laura Heisler. Her eager to learn and live Elma is an absolute delight. (Heisler was also a standout earlier this season in Top Girls). No wonder that even the lecherous, boozy Dr. Lyman's thinks better of luring her to a rendezvous in Topeka. Bill Camp handles Lyman's drunken brilliance with considerable finnesse and makes the most of the fact that he gets some of the script's most incisive and funny lines -- his reference to his run-in with "a progressive little college in the East" got an especially big laugh in this theater located on the campus of a progressive (if not so little) college in the East.

To conclude with mention of some of the previously mentioned, pleasure enhancing directorial touches. The scene to scene shifts are handled smoothly and with minimal fuss-- a welcome relief from the overly busy scene changes by troops of interns trying to make prop moving entertaining. The intra-scene music from the band in the balcony really is entertaining. The set's inclusion of a view of the street beyond Grace's Diner is used to good effect for entrances and exits and the fight between Bo and the Sheriff. It's all beautifully lit by Ben Stanton to let us see the snow gradually replaced with sunlight.

While there's been a renewed interest in Tennessee Williams, who encouraged Inge to abandon his work as a newspaper drama critic to write not only this play but Picnic (which won a Pulitzer) , Come Back Little Sheba and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Inge remains respected but neglected. So a word to the wise, see this well-acted and staged Bus Stop while you can.

Consumer Note: When you go to WTF, try to fit in a visit to the Williams College Museum of Art's stunning exhibition entitled Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film, 1880-1910. There's a lot to see. The legends are fascinating so give yourself at least two hours. The Museum is open every day except Mondays and admission is free.

Written by William Inge
Directed by Will Frears.
Cast: Elizabeth Banks (Cherie), Logan Marshall-Green (Bo Decker), Leon Addison Brown (Virgil Blessing), Bill Camp (Dr. Gerald Lyman),Laura Heisler (Elma Duckworth), Bo Decker), Elizabeth Marvel (Grace Hoylard), Daniel Oreskes (Will Masters), John Douglas Thompson (Carl).
Set Design: Takeshi Kata
Costume Design: Jenny Mannis
Lighting Designer: Ben Stanton
Composer: Michael Friedman
The Stanton Family Band: David Abeles, Dave Chura, Ross Travis and Erica Lipez
August 17 to August 28, 2005
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes
㥆 Center for Theatre and Dance, Williams College, Route 2, Williamstown, MA. 413-597-3400.www.
Ticket prices: $20 to $52
Tuesday through Friday evenings at 8 p.m., Saturday evenings at 8:30 p.m. Matinees are Thursdays at 3 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on August 20th matinee performance
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