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Bus Stop — Bristol Riverside Theatre

bus stop -- interiorAll of the individual stories the wayfarers tell in William Inge’s “Bus Stop” come through clearly in Susan D. Atkinson’s production of the ’50s classic. You get a good sense of this broad cross-section of American types randomly gathered together at the Kansas diner that serves as a mid-trip respite for snacks, coffee, and toilet needs, and you see clearly how lonely the travelers are as they intersect briefly at one of life’s waystations. Atkinson and her cast have an assured feel for the characters involved. The problem is this “Bus Stop,” at Bristol Riverside Theatre, creates no atmosphere or mood, so the void the audience feels in theatrical and not social or psychological.

Atkinson’s approach to “Bus Stop” is episodic. She gives consecutive due to each character and gives ample focus to characters as they reveal who they are and, at times, why they’re adrift on a stormy Midwestern night. The method, though it introduces the characters and lets you glean their stories thoroughly, doesn’t give the sense of a mesh of people who happen to land at the same spot at the same time. The production doesn’t overlap and blend their stories effectively. It seems too efficiently functional, too cut-and-dried. Even the central story of a randy young cowboy abducting an even younger stripper, a sequence famous for Marilyn Monroe’s playing of it the 1956 movie of “Bus Stop,” is literal and unexciting. There’s no fire to it, no steam. Nothing smokes in Atkinson’s production except for the character that light cigarettes. (It is the 1950s.)

Atkinson’s “Bus Stop” retains your interest. Inge and Atkinson’s cast are artful enough to hold your attention and keep you listening intently. But the show only goes far enough is providing information and in showing an unusual collection of people, each of whom needs some change, direction, or luck in their lives. It never touches the emotions. It doesn’t move you. As recitations and incidents occur, you note them but are not affected by them. No character grabs you or makes you care, not even Cherie, the 19-year-old who may have more to her than meets the eye, the only sense to which she knows how to appeal when “Bus Stop” begins.

This “Bus Stop” doesn’t emphasize the differences in the characters from when they arrive at Grace’s Diner to when they reboard their bus heading to Denver and points west. Stories don’t overlap or intersect enough. Characters come across as just passing time in idle, if revealing, conversation rather than as a group that will, to a person, have their life altered at this remote Kansas outpost, smack dab in the middle of the U.S., where their usual 20-minute stay is extended because of a snow storm that closes the roads to the west.

Inge’s bus stop is a place or isolation. Grace’s would barely be noticed, let alone be profitable, if the bus company didn’t use the Kansas town and the diner, to give passengers a rest. One the night Cherie and her travel companions arrive, the depot is more than usually cut off from civilization. Telephone lines are down, keep Grace and her customers from communing with a wider world. Passage in any direction is impossible until road crews rid them of snow. The time the characters have, and the lack of any other amusement, forces them to be talkative, reflective, candid, and revealing. Grace’s is, that night, a place, where much, however subtle and workaday, will happen and a handful or people who confront or expose who they are. Inge provides the stuff of drama and the lines to make it absorbing. The actors certainly tell you who their characters are, even if the most engaging performances are by two of the most passive figures, the high-schooler who works the counter at Grace, Elma, played by Linda Elizabeth, and Grace herself, played with texture by Barbara McCulloh. The problem at Bristol is tension. Even with the friction between the cowboy and Cherie, and a fight that breaks down between the cowboy and the sheriff, no palpable feeling of destiny, or even occasion, emerges. All stays as flat and bland as the Kansas landscape outside of Grace’s. Atkinson’s staging is competent, and that’s all. Bristol’s “Bus Stop” can be understood and appreciated, but it never musters any effect. Emotionally, and theatrically, the production remains consistently inert.

Opportunities abound for doing more with this play, for making it more atmospheric, engaging, and dramatic.

Inge provides a major catalyst for action in Bo, the cowboy, age 21, who spent days winning rodeo prizes and nights watching Cherie perform while in Kansas City. Bo is high-spirited and used to getting what he wants by demanding or simply taking it. He was orphaned as a child and has managed to hold on to an operate his late parents’ Montana cattle ranch, thanks to his travel companion, the ranch foreman, Virgil.

In “Bus Stop,” Bo wants Cherie, another who has been on her own from a young age but who had no one to shelter her or keep her life stable as Bo has from Virgil, or as Elma has from Grace, the sheriff, and her family.

Cherie has been living by her wits, or more precisely, by her face and figure from age 14 when she left her southern hometown and roosted in Kansas City, where she made a name as dancer in a gentleman’s club. Bo sees her at that club, falls in love, and showers Cherie with attention. Unwanted attention as it turns out because Cherie flees from the Kansas City, Mo. Nightclub where she works to get away from Bo. Her bad luck is she’s at the K.C. bus depot when Bo arrives to look for her. He takes her, bags and baggage, and carries her on the bus that is stopping at Grace’s en route to Denver, then on to Montana, where Bo intents to marry Grace and ensconce as his wife and mistress of his Montana ranch.

Consider all of the possibilities in that story alone. You have one person’s idea of love and a broad story of extreme romantic attraction. You have someone else forcing another person who go his way and entertain his bidding. You have two aimless, but beautiful and sexy, young people on a course that is unsure since one of them is set on having matters his way, and the other is resistant and appeals to the sheriff to protect her from a tormenter. You have the looming and abundant sexuality of each character. Neither Cherie nor Bo is run-of-the-mill. They are exceptional looking people as played by Grant Struble and the versatile Jessica Wagner, yet they are deeper than their libidos. Each has to mature in a way, Bo to learn propriety and proportion, Cherie to feel the warmth and regard of a man who might actually like her for who she is and to might take her from a hardscrabble existence to an established home with all of its security.

The story of Bo and Cherie, which Inge uses as a centerpiece and a leitmotiv that links and offsets other travelers’ tales, has fireworks written all over it. At Bristol, these pyrotechnics don’t exactly fizzle — You see and grasp the dynamic between Bo and Cherie. — but they don’t soar or excite either.

The Bo-Cherie thread gets no emphasis, no spotlight to set it apart from other stories, as Inge does.

Chemistry is another issue. One can easily tell how desirous, rowdy, and ham-handed Bo is as a lover. Struble enters Grace’s and remains there as a force of nature come to claim his harvest. One can see the vulnerability beneath Cherie’s experience and bravado. Wagner makes it clear, that for all she’s been through with men and strip joints, Cherie is 19 and wants something better.

NealBoxWhat you don’t see is genuine regard or romance brewing. Struble and Wagner never look at each other with ardor. There’s no sense of lust, let alone love. The actors play the outer trappings of their characters, but they don’t deliver where it’s most important. They’re not believable as lovers. Cherie’s initial fear and standoffishness seems to be perceptive because even when Struble is calm and more direct as Bo, chastised and schooled in manhood by Virgil and the sheriff, and even when Cherie listens to him more receptively, there’s no connection between Struble and Wagner or a visceral level.

As characters, they have to connect. Inge says so. “Bus Stop” requires it. On the Bristol stage, passion never materializes. Struble does a great job with youthful energy, untutored behavior towards women, and giant-sized desire. Wagner skillfully reveals the girl behind Cherie’s make-up and tartlike clothes. They are adversaries in the beginning, and one comprehends the situation immediately. This guy is aggressively foisting attention on a woman who has said, ‘no.’ “No, no, a thousand times, no!” But “Bus Stop” insists they come to an understanding. Cherie’s decision at the end of the play has to be based on something concrete, something she knows from every survivalist fiber of her being, is genuine and right. Bo needs to realize that others have choices and what a particular choice means at a particular time. All of this is in “Bus Stop,” but Struble and Wagner don’t play it. Besides exuding no emotional sparks, no sign that love is likely once Bo gets over his infatuation, the pair don’t show the moment of Cherie’s capitulation or of Bo understanding at last what love is and how expressing it civilly might go further in attracting a woman than mauling or molesting her does.

“Bus Stop” is rich, and Atkinson mined only want is visible on the surface. Struble and Wagner have infinite opportunities to sparkle and win the audience’s hearts as Bo and Cherie, but they miss the subtleties in their characters, and they create no electricity.

The same emotional evenness pervades Atkinson’s production. Linda Elizabeth and Barbara McCulloh are the only performers that overcome it, probably because Elma and Grace are at home and rooted in reality that comes across the Bristol stage.

Elizabeth seems especially natural. Of all the actors, she is one who is living her role and betrays nothing of who she is other than being Elma.

Elizabeth is ingenuous as Elma listens to the life story and is impressed by the academic credentials of the cultured professor Gerald Lyman, played with dignity and the right touch of practiced charm by Mark Jacoby. You legitimately worry that Elma may be taken in by a serial pedophile, especially when she agrees to meet Lyman at a Topeka library on a day they both have business in the Kansas capital. You see Elma grow as she studies and understands the various character who invaded Grace’s. You realize she is receptive to the wisdom Grace can impart from experience and from being sharp about life if general.

Elizabeth makes Elma important to Atkinson’s production. She is as much on a journey of transition as everyone in the bus stop. She is seeing a wider world and learning to cope within it as a responsible adult. Elma loses some of her naivety, and Elizabeth nicely conveys how what Elma learns affects her. And affects her positively.

McCulloh’s Grace may spend her life in a backwater Kansas town, but she is a woman of profound sense who is on to every passenger’s game from the time of her arrival. Heaven knows how many travelers and human types Grace has seen in a decade or more of running her diner. She can assess who people are and forgo being impressed with anyone. She just wants to sell her donuts, sandwiches, coffee, and magazines and go about her business.

McCulloh, especially in her posture when the lights on Bristol’s “Bus Stop” are about to fade out, shows Grace’s weariness with the routine of her life, She also shows the woman’s keen sensibility and honesty.

“Bus Stop” may have seemed advanced in the ’50s as the married Grace takes time to have a sexual fling with the also-wedded bus driver, something that would be considered common today (and was probably common then, though not addressed in the theater). McCulloh, who in answer to one of Elma’s questions, has addressed the long absence of her husband, plays the scene with cool nonchalance but has the goodness to be abashed when she knows Elma realized what she did.

Everything McCulloh does reinforces the image of the hard-working woman who’s heard every joke, seen every variety of character, and serves customer simple take-it-or-leave-it food without catering to anyone’s cavils or complaints. Hers is a smart performance that adds texture to her character. Bristol’s “Bus Stop” would have been markedly better if all of the characters, and specifically Bo and Cherie, conveyed the dimension McCulloh and Elizabeth do.

Grant Struble is perfect physical casting for Bo. Long, lean, and handsome with a classic cowboy face, he bounds on to the “Bus Stop” set with youthful energy. Struble plays the blind aggressiveness of Bo well. He understands the character, a man who thinks he’s paying a woman the highest compliments and showing the depth of his passion while she sees him as a clumsy oaf who grabs too tight, paws too wildly, and kisses like the inexperienced bumpkin he is. There’s a lot of juvenile moxie to Struble’s newly minted adult that is seeing the world outside of Montana for the first time.

But there’s no sex appeal. Attractive as Struble is, and as expressive as he can be as an actor, he neglects the two crucial keys to Bo’s character. Beneath the hormonal reaction and rough romancing of Cherie has to be a man who can learn the finesse of a lover and, more importantly, a man who discovers his true affection for his “Dulcinea” when ardor subsides, quiet prevails, and the man and woman are talking as people first and lovers second.

You don’t see how experience or the tutelage of wiser men is going to help Struble’s Bo. He goes in more for the pigheadedness of one who thinks he’s entitled to a woman because he’s declared his attraction to her and of one who can’t tell the difference between manhandling and wooing.

As with Wagner’s Cherie, you don’t see the moment when Struble’s Bo gives up his childish ways and speaks to Cherie with sincerity. Of course, you know when this event happens on the Bristol stage. Mike Boland’s well-played sheriff, after joining Bruce Sabath’s equally well-portrayed Virgil in coaching Bo about how a woman might prefer to be treated, pressures the cowboy into going to Cherie to apologize. The choice between saying you’re sorry or going to jail for a few years is, after all, an easy one, especially when a sheriff has already had you in handcuffs. While humbling himself to Cherie, it’s important that Bo realize the truth in what he begins saying to please the police and eventually speak in unmistakable earnest.

That doesn’t happen any more than you see the instance when Wagner’s Cherie warms to Bo. Struble does an admirable, but incomplete, job, because he can play the cantankerous overeager suitor but he can’t convey the contrite, tender, and genuinely committed lover Bo becomes. The ham-handed boy thinks actions, even inexperienced action, speaks louder than kind, honest words. The enlightened man has to know better, and we don’t see him emerging in Struble. Even when Bo first begins fondling Cherie, you see him pursuing his idea of a sexy woman rather than offering his hand sincerely to someone he regards above all others. Cherie can tell his kiss is one of someone unpracticed in lovemaking. He seems no more adept or authentic when he professes love to a more receptive Cherie near “Bus Stop’s” end.

Jessica Wagner also portrays most aspects of Cherie well. Wagner’s greatest success is in making you like Cherie which encourages you to take her side against Bo and want to see her protected.

Wagner shows you Cherie is far from stupid. She especially knows her way around men and their promises. Pleasing men has been her business for five years by the time Bo meets her. To Wagner’s credit, she suffuses Cherie’s worldly knowledge with a needy streak that is more suitable to her age. Wagner’s Cherie wants to be loved. She may not mind working for tips in men’s clubs, but she longs for something better, steadier, and more secure. She wants this as a child may want it but can appreciate it like a woman who has given a lot of herself to survive in a world that values her for two things, her looks and her willingness.

You enjoy hearing Wagner tell Cherie’s story. The character earns your sympathy as you learn she has always had to please men in personal ways to survive.

Wagner’s Cherie also enjoys being friendly. She can warm to Elma and Grace, and she is more than willing to contribute to a talent show Elma organizes to pass the time.

Cherie sings the song that attracted Bo to whoop and holler in approval every night in Kansas City, Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen’s “That Old Black Magic.” Wagner does the number well as directed. She flirts with the house, thrusts her pelvis and limbs at opportune times, puts her mouth in a pout, and does a classic grind as “round and round” she goes. This next remark is a cavil, but I would have liked it better, and think it would have served “Bus Stop” is Wagner’s Cherie was allowed to a credible version of the song, with some of the choreographed gyrations intact. While the character may have been singing to an undemanding audience in Kansas City, it gives her dignity and more empathy if she is portrayed as having the makings of a decent entertainer.

Wagner’s Cherie is a highly different creation from her excellent Patsy Cline at Bristol last spring. It shows the actress’s versatility. As she did with Patsy Cline, Wagner reveals some of what is going on in Cherie’s head. The one place her performance bogs down is Cherie’s reaction to Bo. While at times it is friendly, it is never loving. The Cherie we see doesn’t warm to Bo or have an impetus to travel with him longer. Again, Inge tells us what’s happening more than Wagner or Struble show it.

Mike Boland is forthright and solid as the sheriff. He comes across as a man who can offer logic while keeping the piece.

Mark Jacoby deftly delivers a stock academic in Gerald Lyman. His vocal tone is high-brow, and he uses an exaggeratedly cultured accent that sounds like it’s been rehearsed to produce a desired effect, making Lyman sound authoritatively erudite.

Jacoby’s Lyman is quite smooth in seducing Elizabeth’s Elma, who is attracted to the professor’s intellect and showy use of wit but warned in time to be prevented from seeing him alone.

Lyman’s stories about his three wives seem to dominate the first third of Atkinson’s production. This keeps Bristol’s “Bus Stop” a bit static and lopsided in favor of a less important character than Bo or Cherie. You keep waiting for something to happen because of Lyman’s tales, and nothing ever does.

Bruce Sabath earns high marks for his guitar playing in Elma’s talent show. He is also enjoyable as Bo’s best friend, the only one who can talk sense to the boy without having to use the coercion techniques the sheriff employs. David Sitler is amiable and on the mark as the bus driver who uses his respite wisely by spending it with Grace and tells the diner owner, “You’d be surprised what you can do it 20 minutes,” the time of the usual stop at Grace’s,

Nels Anderson’s set is as realistic as Inge’s play and looks right while also being highly functional. Linda Bee Stockton does a fine job in choosing costume, especially the waitress uniforms donned by Grace and Elma. She could have been a little more generous about having Struble’s open his shirt to look a tad more primitive as he lusts after Cherie. Rick Sordelet stages an excellent fight between Bo and the sheriff.

“Bus Stop” runs through Sunday, October 18, at the Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, in Bristol, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $47 to $37 and can be obtained by calling 215-785-0100 or by visiting www.brtstage.org.

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