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'Bus Stop' crackles with romance


Phoenix Festival Theater's production of "Bus Stop," William Inge's three-act romance set in a Midwestern diner, is as satisfying as a cup of joe and a slab of apple pie a la mode.

As directed by Allan Herlinger and playing at Harford Community College through July 31, "Bus Stop" is a total sensory experience that begins as you set foot in the theater.

Grace's Diner crackles to life through the imagination and painstaking attention to detail of set designer Terri Raulie, sound and lighting designer Bill Price and technical director Todd Mion.

Formica tables dot the diamond pattern of the grimy linoleum floor and you get the feeling that if you stuck your hand under one of the chrome counter stools, you'd come up with a wad of chewing gum. Snow swirls outside the windows in the headlights of that fateful bus.

And your diner experience isn't limited to visuals. When Grace whips up an order of fried eggs, they sizzle in the pan and the aroma comes wafting through the house. As your mouth waters, she rings up the sale on a vintage cash register and the cash drawer clangs shut.

As the play opens, it's the wee hours of a March day in 1955 and a snowstorm has blocked the road to Topeka, Kan., leaving the bus passengers stranded at Grace's roadside eatery until dawn. Among the travelers are a couple of cowboys, a flamboyant young woman in a rhinestone-studded dress who claims she's being kidnapped and a drunken doctor of philosophy.

The drama revolves around a rambunctious cowboy and his reluctant fiancee. Cherie is a 19-year-old nightclub singer of heart-stopping beauty who hasn't lost her ideal of true love despite her hard-knock life. The lovesick Bo is, for all his bluff and bravado, a simple farm boy at heart who must be taught the intricacies of courtship from his sidekick, Virgil. With Bo and Cherie as catalysts, the play explores themes of love and loneliness as the characters reveal desires and disappointments.

It's a simple theme, perhaps, but in the hands of director Allan Herlinger endlessly entertaining.

Mr. Herlinger's staging is theatrically presentational, in keeping with the '50s sensibility of playwright Inge, whose dialogue is an old-fashioned medley of dramatic speeches. It's an interesting contrast to the fast-paced dialogue of modern playwrights such as David Mamet, who mimics conversation by overlapping lines and writing choppy exchanges.

Mr. Herlinger makes excellent use of the set to create striking stage pictures and he gives us some enchanting moments, as when Cherie is seen sneaking a furtive peek at Bo in her compact mirror.

He has assembled a cast of warmth and vitality. Perfectly cast in the role of big handsome Bo, David Calkins pulls off the transition from bull-headed braggart to lovable hunk with just the right combination of pent-up sexual energy and aching loneliness.

In the showy role of Cherie -- played by Marilyn Monroe in the movie version -- Joy Schiebel sparkles. She fleshes out a character who could easily be a caricature -- the uneducated showgirl who's been around the block too many times -- by bringing intelligence and depth to the role. Her best moment comes in Act Two, when she reveals her fear that the kind of love she's seeking may be nothing but a fantasy.

Although the other characters can be described with one adjective each, none is portrayed as one-dimensional by this talented cast. Toni Epstein as the grouchy Grace, Lori Cipollini as the naive Elma, Fred Isgrig as the gruff but fair sheriff, Duane Cipollini as the opportunistic Carl and Mark Siegel as Virgil all deserve mention.

Vernon Winces brings a certain quirkiness to the role of Dr. Lyman, but his diction is often poor and his character comes across as more comic than pathetic.

So well do we come to know the patrons of Grace's Diner that by the time the bus pulls out for Topeka, we feel we're saying good-bye to old friends.

For ticket information, call 836-4340.

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