Famous people who commit suicide are forever defined by their deaths. We come to look on them as marked by the defect of premature death, a rubber stamp at the end of their life story that says, "I told you so." But it may be more accurate to define a suicide's life by the many years that person worked to keep going.
I say this because Bus Stop represents a moment of brightness in the life of William Inge (Picnic, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Splendor in the Grass), a playwright who suffered from depression and alcoholism, never felt he'd really succeeded, and ended up killing himself in 1973. Written during a 20-year stretch of sobriety (and dedicated to his analyst), the play was a successful effort to do what he was born to do: write about people he loved. Inge (sounds like "hinge") found with his first Broadway show, Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), that success was nothing it had been cracked up to be: "Other people kept coming up to me saying, 'Aren't you thrilled?'," he wrote. "...There was absolutely no one to understand how I felt, for I didn't feel anything at all. I was in a funk." Yet he kept working, refining his vision of a lively, often funny, Midwestern drama.
Bus Stop, which premiered on Broadway in 1955 and currently receives a strong revival at the Jungle, is a good example of why Inge has been compared to painter Edward Hopper: It's self-consciously constructed, voyeuristic, and defined by shadows and whispers; it's more interested in the weight of interactions than in linear plot. Unlike a Hopper painting, however, Bus Stop is funny, packed with characters, and openly affectionate toward them.
A study of different kinds of love, it's set in a roadside diner in Kansas, where a motley group of bus riders, archetypal figures all, wait out a snow storm overnight. The cowboy, Bo Decker, is in love with the lounge singer, Cherie--whom he unironically calls "Cherry"--and intends to drag her back to his ranch in Montana. Dr. Lyman, a lecherous, alcoholic ex-professor, spe nds his days traveling the country aimlessly on buses. He's attracted to the bookish teenage waitress, Elma Duckworth (the ultimate ugly duckling) while the cafe owner, Grace Hoylard, has her own thing going with Carl, the bus driver. And sitting quietly in the corner, strumming his guitar or smoking, is Bo's mentor Virgil Blessing, who tries to keep the boy from getting in trouble with the sheriff, Will Masters. (Yeah, the names aren't too subtle.)
In a poor production of Bus Stop--and there have been many--the characters come off as mere clichés; finding and expressing subtleties that Inge seemingly wrote in invisible ink is no easy task. But the Jungle succeeds stylishly, in part because of the wonderfully authentic set designed by director Bain Boehlke. Though the play is set in the '50s, this small-town greasy spoon looks stuck in the '30s, as it should. The chairs don't match, and even the varnish on the front side of the counter is worn away in front of each stool. When Grace walks out the back door and up to her second-floor apartment, we hear her feet plodding on the stairs. And when the bus pulls up to the diner with a flash of headlights, blowing snow, and the roar of the engine, we are completely seduced by this shows delicious realism.
Grace, is played beautifully by Claudia Wilkens. She's luxuriantly relaxed onstage, with a dead-on comic timing and a bone-deep sensitivity to the cadences of Inge's language. As Virgil, Vance Gellert is quiet and warm, nestled deep inside his character, while Tracey Maloney delivers a captivating performance as Elma--she listens better than anyone I've seen in a while. And Tom Carey, as Carl, makes the quintessential laconic bus driver. Each actor retreats to an internal monologue when the others take center stage; this constantly draws our eyes to the corners, where Dr. Lyman stares into space, Virgil meditates, Elma reads, or Grace whispers to Carl. We try to keep tabs on everyone's state, and when they all talk over each other, as they do throughout the play, it can be like watching three tennis games being played on one court.
But it's the three foreigners to Kansas (minus Virgil) who thrash about the most, and if anyone comes to some sort of resolution, it is they. Dr. Lyman, Cherie, and Bo are the crucial roles, the ones with the most risk of banality (and the most extreme accents and mannerisms); perhaps as a result, the performances here are patchier. Though he's quite funny, Steve Hendrickson overdoes Lyman's drunkenness and pushes the moments of truth too hard. Julia Tehven as Cherie is an open-hearted package of damaged goods--quite a tough combo--but her Southern accent is spotty and she occasionally falls into sing-song readings. And Jeff Gallenbeck is hit-and-miss as Bo; I believed him much more as the wiser, gentler Bo at the end than the clueless wrangler at the start.
Still, this production expertly peels away many layers of the play, revealing something fundamentally true in each character as he or she struggles toward a realistic, respectful love for others. Inge wrote in 1958 of Bus Stop: "I felt quite proud... that I had held the audience's interest long after what would normally be considered the final 'payoff'... I guess maybe I was trying to prove that a play's merits can exist, not in the dramatization of one soul-satisfying event, but in the overall pattern and texture of a play." That's still as interesting an idea today--and one can't help but wish Inge had applied it to his own career. CP
Bus Stop runs through March 2; call 822-7063 for tickets.