SMITTEN: Sorensen and Maddock.
The Eisenhower years were in the most uptight decade of the last century, but William Inge’s plays from that era — about the power of love to reclaim damaged hearts — broke through any complacency. 2nd Story Theatre is staging Inge’s somewhat sentimental masterwork, Bus Stop (through June 10), and doing a fine job of it.
The play came to Broadway in 1955, two years after the playwright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Picnic, another story of bored lives and sexual escape. Both are known best in their movie versions, but 2nd Story is showing how the immediacy of theater is irreplaceable, providing real live heartbeats.
A snowstorm drives eight characters into a single room, a Kansas diner. Now and then one or two of them leave for a while to sulk or take a walk or tryst upstairs, but basically as a chill wind howls around them they are locked into a metaphor of the human condition. This being an American account and mainstream theater, rather than Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, each is offered an escape, through discovery or display, into their better nature.
Of course, if these characters are going to be diverse and representative, we’re bound to get some stereotypes among the archetypes. But any of them that start out as the former eventually morph into the latter, as Inge skillfully individualizes them.
Grace Hoylard (Joanne Fayan) is a middle-aged waitress who owns the diner and lives above it. Under her wing is Elma Duckworth (Maryellen Brito), a friendly but naïve high school student who waits tables there. With the roads closed and the phone lines down, bus driver Carl (Walter Cotter) is glad to spend more than his customary 20-minute stopover, eager to resume charming Grace.
A couple of conflicts are provided. The quieter one, a menacing drumbeat in the background, is supplied by Dr. Gerald Lyman (F. William Oakes), a verbose, flask-sipping ex-English professor who chats up young Elma, fascinating to her but sounding creepily seductive to us.
But the main dramatic tension is between Cherie (Laura Sorensen), of late a singer in a seedy Kansas City nightclub, and Bo Decker (Kyle Maddock), a strutting hullabaloo of a rodeo rider and cowboy. He spent a night with Cherie and can’t get it through his thick skull, no matter how much she protests, that she doesn’t want to be hauled off to his Montana ranch to marry him. His older friend Virgil Blessing (Vince Petronio), who has been looking out for him since he was 10, also can’t convince him otherwise.
From the outset we know that she’s in no real danger, not only because Bo is as well-meaning as he is obnoxious, but also because goodhearted sheriff Will Masters (Joe Henderson) is sitting at the counter, sipping his coffee and making sure nothing gets out of hand.
What makes this all work for a modern audience is Inge’s basic honesty about these people. They may start out as stock characters, but the decisions they eventually make seem to grow out of individual personalities rather than as actions assigned to them.
Happiness, the playwright seems to say, comes from settling for less. Grace isn’t looking for a husband, just occasionally a warm body next to hers. The professor admits that he’s always had trouble not getting his own way (those meddling deans), but in a drunken revelation he decides that sometimes doing the right thing feels even better. Bo epitomizes headstrong youth, to the point of caricature, but eventually he learns the scary obvious, that all the grabbing in the world won’t hold onto love.
Directed by Ed Shea, the acting is generally convincing, especially the low-key roles. Sorensen is amusingly exasperated as Cherie, and Brito’s young innocent has a knowingness that makes the character more credible. Petronio takes the opportunity to do more acting with a quiet presence than through his lines. Henderson gives a bemused dimension to the sheriff, who’s seen it all. Fayan and Cotter, as Grace and the flirtatious bus driver, get a nice rhythm going. Most challenging are the two most emotionally overwrought personalities, Bo and Dr. Lyman; Maddock and Oakes are both most effective in scenes where their characters quiet down to discover and reveal what they’re really feeling.