Written by William Inge
Directed by David Schweizer
Through Dec. 23 at Center Stage
On a March evening in the early 1950s, a small-town diner 30 miles west of Kansas City fills up with a small crowd of Midwestern innocents. A young cowboy declares that women will love him if he wins enough rodeo trophies, while an older cowboy assumes he can avoid talking to women if he just keeps playing his guitar. An old professor recites Shakespearean sonnets to complete strangers, and a teenage waitress dreams of going away to college. A nightclub singer doesn't know how she got dragged to this small town by the cowboys or how to get back to Kansas City. A lonely woman owns the diner, and a lonely bus driver is passing through one more time.
In pop culture, innocence is usually portrayed as an enviable quality, an unspoiled, unstained mindset that provides a clear path to true love. William Inge, the author of Bus Stop and the creator of this diner and the crowd inside, is too smart to believe that. He knows that innocence is actually an impediment to love, a lack of knowledge that prevents one from moving forward. He also knows that apparent innocence is often anything but. In Center Stage's strong production of this 1955 classic, the disguise of false innocence is soon peeled away and the intoxication of true innocence fades away not long after.
Director David Schweizer doesn't try anything showy or innovative; he goes for an understated naturalism that suits Inge's dialogue. The playwright shifts quickly from a conversation in one corner of the diner to a different set of talkers in the opposite corner, and the director makes those transitions so smooth-as synchronized as parts in a big-band arrangement-that we gradually understand how these apparently disconnected scenes comment on one another. We begin to see that the older characters aren't nearly as guileless as they seem, and the younger characters are slowly learning that the sooner they cast off their naivete, the better. Stranded in the diner by a snowstorm, they get every chance to do just that.
Dr. Lyman, the professor (Patrick Husted), for example, isn't the dreamy poet he first seems. He's a calculating, alcoholic seducer of young women, and Elma, the high-school-junior waitress (Kayla Ferguson), is falling into his web. Virgil, the older cowboy (Larry Tobias), has a strange attachment to Bo, the younger cowboy (Jack Fellows), living vicariously through Bo's adventures like a possessive, if platonic lover. Grace, the diner owner (Pilar Witherspoon), expresses relief that her husband has been gone for months, and she soon lures Carl, the bus driver (Malachy Cleary), to her apartment above the diner. Bo, meanwhile, has kidnapped Cherie, the nightclub singer (Susannah Hoffman), and is taking her to his Montana cattle ranch against her will. Cherie is shocked only because she assumed Bo was just one more one-night stand.
Despite his cocky bluster and his patently illegal abduction of a young woman, Bo is the most innocent person on the premises. A 21-year-old beanpole in a gray cowboy hat and embroidered purple cowboy shirt, he seems to think that if he sleeps with a girl and wakes up loving her that it must lead to marriage, no matter what the girl says. Even Elma isn't that foolish; she at least seems aware of what she doesn't know and is eager to fill in the gaps. Though Virgil, Grace, Dr. Lyman, and Will, the sheriff (Michael D. Nichols), all try to set Bo straight, he refuses to give up his idealistic view of love.
As Bo, Fellows captures the arrogance of ignorance with comic accuracy. At one point the cowboy throws the blond singer, in her pink rhinestone dress, over his shoulder as if he were a caveman marching across the checkerboard linoleum floor. But he finds the front door barred by the sheriff, who's determined to apply Freud's reality principle to Bo's jaw in the form of a right fist. Meanwhile, Dr. Lyman is having better luck wooing Elma with deceit. A shabby old man in an ill-fitting gray suit, Husted has a knack for chuckling in the middle of the professor's flowery talk, a disarming acknowledgement of his own foolishness that only makes him more dangerous.
The show's standout performance, though, comes from Hoffman as Cherie. An anorexic, peroxide blonde, the actress is able to shoo away Fellows with a hiss and a jabbing motion of her long fingernails. At other times, she seems completely lost, unable to draw any useful conclusions from the series of bad experiences that has been her life. On those occasions, Hoffman goes wide-eyed, like a scared, small animal who has just encountered hunters for the first time. And yet, out of one of those vacant stares, in Hoffman's deceptively stumbling voice, comes Cherie's great epiphany: "I just gotta feel that whoever I marry has some real regard for me, apart from all the lovin' and sex."
Just as these Kansas characters are not as simple as they first appear, neither is the Kansas playwright who created them. Inge is usually eclipsed by the great American playwrights of the '50s-Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller-but Williams was a great admirer of Inge, for he saw the tensions beneath the simple surface. This production doesn't get everything right-the odd relationship between Bo and Virgil is underdeveloped, as are the musical elements-but Schweizer creates a good tempo that allows the shifting dialogues to flow and the facades of innocence to slowly crumble. He brings out the hidden Inge, just as Inge brings out the hidden Cherie and the hidden Dr. Lyman.