What transpires in that nondescript roadside eatery provides potent fuel for “Bus Stop,” the classic dramedy by William Inge that has received a welcome and satisfying revival from Center Stage.
Inge had a knack for generating extraordinary theater out of ordinary people, places, passions and, especially, illusions. In this case, he brings together well-known types — cowboy, sheriff, waitress, alcoholic and the like — and gives them fresh and unexpected turns, all the while avoiding easy sentimentality or blatant melodrama.
On the surface, “Bus Stop” ... does not have much of a plot, but this slice of American life is deftly carved to reveal a lot of layers, little insights into what makes us crave affection and how we can so easily mess up the process of finding it.
March isn’t the only thing that comes in like a lion as the play starts. First off the bus is the anxious, self-proclaimed chanteuse Cherie. She’s hoping to escape from another passenger, Bo, the young Montana rancher who has taken a shine to her and, it appears, has kidnapped her — though with the intention of matrimony.
There’s something deliciously incongruous about Cherie, looking way too showbizy for a bus trip, let alone a blizzard, and barely concealing her Ozark roots. Her presence transforms and unbalances the whole diner.
Her story is so sweet, her predicament so curious, that Inge could have centered the play solely on her and still had plenty of material. That’s what happened with the movie version of “Bus Stop” (Inge collaborated on the screenplay). The emphasis was understandable, since the film was a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, but that meant trimming characters and incident.
The original version requires an actress who can hold the spotlight, but still leave plenty of room for the others, and that’s what Center Stage offers in the shapely form of Susannah Hoffman.
The actress is a thoroughly endearing Cherie. She makes you believe in this half-flighty, half-purposeful woman, who has been around the block several times, but never could find her way.
Hoffman ensures that the character’s fragility and doubt register as keenly as the naive faith in her abilities as an entertainer. And what an entertainer. In one of the play’s funniest scenes — an impromptu floor show organized by the young waitress Elma to help pass the time — Cherie gets her chance to go all out.
Changed into a slinky, very-Marilyn gown (Clint Ramos designed the costumes), Hoffman seizes this moment, performing her number in a thin, slightly off-pitch voice and with all sorts of awkward, over-sized gestures. It’s the most wonderfully bad act since Mary Richards tackled “One More for My Baby” in Lou Grant’s office on an episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
You can’t help but laugh, but you can’t help but feel affection, too. Hoffman generates a similar reaction delivering Cherie’s disarming response to the refined speech of fellow passenger Dr. Lyman: “I don’t understand anything you say, but I just love the way you say it.”
And keep an eye on Hoffman’s final moments onstage, when she turns to Grace and Elma to declare, “I’m going to Montana.” The expression on her face is worth a thousand play scripts.
There are many other small and telling details in the production, smoothly directed by David Schweizer (only his idea for the opening sequence, which involves live music, fails to convince, trying a little too hard to set the mood).
The rest of the cast has much to offer, and will likely get even tighter as the run continues. Maybe Jack Fellows, as Bo, will get subtler, too. Judging by opening night, he’s inclined to overdo the Jethro Bodine side of the terribly immature rancher, here dressed in pristine cowboy duds (Inge envisioned a gruffer appearance).
And, as awkward as Bo may be about the ways of love and what-not, he needn’t move quite as stiffly as Fellows. Still, the lanky actor leaves his mark, especially in the scenes after the inevitable humbling experience that Bo must endure.
As Virgil, Bo’s older, slightly wiser, guitar-pickin’ buddy, Larry Tobias does excellent work, fleshing out the character nicely and handling the musical requirements of the role with a tender touch. (The original score for this production by Lindsay Jones had input from Tobias.)
Pilar Witherspoon is authentic as Grace, a lonely woman who needs to serve more than coffee once in a while, and who always likes to see a good fight.
Kayla Ferguson makes a charming Elma, effectively revealing the high schooler’s mix of brains, dreams and innocence, her desire to be noticed and taken seriously. And Ferguson’s comic instincts sparkle during the let’s-put-on-a-show scene, reciting Shakespeare in a great, giddy whirl.
Elma’s would-be Romeo, Dr. Lyman, is played by Patrick Husted. Some lines could use finessing, but he reveals considerable flair along the way and opens a sympathetic window into the drunken, much-married dirty old man who holds a smidgen of nobility tucked inside his rumpled self.
Filling out the cast ably are Malachy Cleary, as the hardy bus driver, and Michael D. Nichols as the no-nonsense sheriff (he could use a more believable beard).
James Noone’s scenic design warmly evokes the diner, where so many things, big and small, petty and serious, are on the menu one blustery night in March.
"Bus Stop" runs through Dec. 23.PHOTOS BY RICHARD ANDERSON