Bus Stop is set in a diner, where worldly-wise owner Grace supervises her high-school-aged waitress, Elma. On this particular night, a snowstorm has closed the road ahead, and a bus is stranded outside. Among those requiring doughnuts and coffee or bacon and eggs are driver Carl, who is Grace's occasional lover, and a disgraced philosophy professor, Gerald Lyman. The primary drama, however, is provided by cowboy Bo Decker and Cherie, who calls herself a chanteuse. A lad with no experience of women, Bo saw Cherie singing in a cheap nightclub and took her winks and smiles to the audience personally. When she later allowed him to bed her, he saw it as a promise, so he forced her onto the bus — despite the remonstrations of his best friend, Virgil — and now plans to take her to his cattle ranch in Montana. The local sheriff, Will, is at the diner, and Cherie turns to him for help.
The play is an extended conversation on love, love in several manifestations. In addition to the sparring of Bo and Cherie, there's Grace's taste for unencumbered sex and single living; the professor's interest in young girls; Elma's crush on the professor — a crush sparked by her love of learning and his store of knowledge. It's another kind of love, a form of agape, perhaps, that allows her to forgive him, even once she understands what he is. Every character pontificates on love at one point or another, and most of them have advice for Bo, who can't understand why he needs it, feeling he's lovable already: "I can read and write," he says. "I'm kind of tidy."
William Inge wrote Bus Stop in 1955, and it shows its age. The sheriff (well played by Dan Mundell) is the tough, kindly father figure who appears in many dramatic works of the time. Though Bo's dialogue is both funny and charming, it's hard to believe his extraordinary innocence — mirrored in many ways by Cherie's, despite her sexual experience. We're also more inclined than Inge's original audience to shudder at the kidnapping, with its overtones of violence and stalking — at least before we understand Bo's essential good-heartedness. But snatching the woman you wanted, and understanding that her "no" really meant "yes," was a cultural commonplace in the 1950s. In 1954's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, for example, six women are seized by a group of lonely backwoods brothers (the seventh pairing is consensual); there are no rapes, of course, and eventually each woman comes to love her abductor. Yet in other ways, Bus Stop tests the received wisdom of its time. The affair between Carl and Grace is presented uncritically, some compassion is shown toward the slimy professor, and Virgil may be harboring homosexual feelings for bullheaded Bo.
Presented by Paragon Theatre through June 6, Crossroads Theater, 2590 Washington Street, 303-300-2210, www.paragontheatre.org.
The performances are good, but not quite good enough to ransom the script's weaknesses and deepen its strengths. Jim Hunt goes all out; his professor is a mix of pathos, ham and utter creepiness. Barbra Andrews and John Jurcheck do well overall with the roles of Cherie and Bo, but they don't completely settle into them; you think of them as acting and find yourself wondering about their rural accents, wishing they'd shed or modify them. Jurcheck is physically perfect for Bo, though — tall, lean and lithe — and some of his moments of silent puzzlement are genuinely touching. Andrews, too, can be moving, though she does seem a little too sharp for Cherie. There's a lovely passage when she and Malorie Stroud, who plays Elma with childlike simplicity and innocence, share their ideas, and we realize how wise and grounded the younger woman is and how profoundly Cherie, who has led a harsh and minimal life, needs respect and affection.
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Although this isn't a compelling evening of theater, there's a sweetness to it — and you can't help being happy when Bo and Cherie finally walk into each other's arms.