Bus Stop, currently showing at the Arvada Center, was written in 1955, and it creaks a bit. A group of people are stranded by a howling blizzard at a bus stop restaurant in a small town west of Kansas City. What follows is a character study of this disparate gathering, along with a meditation on love in their various voices. There’s Grace, who presides over the place with the help of high-school student Elma; the local sheriff, Will; and bus driver Carl. Also a disgraced professor, Dr. Gerald Lyman, and the couple who carry the strongest dramatic charge: impetuous cowboy Bo Decker and Cherie, the woman he’s carried off against her will and is determined to take to his Montana ranch as his wife.
You can play Bus Stop for comedy — it has lots of funny moments — or emphasize the script’s underlying pathos. This production, directed by Allison Watrous, does neither with much conviction. For a few moments, watching, I remembered another play set in a small, safe, isolated place during a storm: the rural Irish pub in Conor McPherson’s The Weir. McPherson used the setting to reveal the ultimate and sorrowful loneliness of human existence. Grace’s place serves up eggs, ham and coffee, and is far cozier. She’s having a cheerful, no-strings affair with Carl. Divorced herself, she doesn’t even know if Carl’s married or not, and she doesn’t particularly care — an arrangement that would have been very daring in its time. Young Elma is in love with books, fascinated by the Shakespeare-quoting Dr. Lyman and completely unaware of the dangers posed by his keen attention to her. Bo’s longtime older friend, Virgil, is a kind of father figure to him, and strong, kindly Sheriff Will represents a father figure to pretty much everyone else.
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All of the actors, members of a repertory company put together specifically for the center’s Black Box Theater and perhaps the only one in the entire area, are very strong, but somehow their work doesn’t jell into a true ensemble. The rhythms are wrong, the dialogue often falls flat, and the characters don’t feel fully developed or explored. One of the few moments when I actually felt empathy for anyone on stage was when Jenna Moll Reyes’s Elma clumsily and sweetly recited the lines from the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet to Professor Lyman’s increasingly drunk and agitated Romeo. There’s something genuinely interesting in the script here, too: Elma’s ultimate willingness to forgive the professor’s ugly impulses stems from the kind of love she possesses, a passionate, word-drunk love of knowledge and poetry.
Sam Gregory is always good to watch, but Dr. Lyman is oddly unfinished as written — a drunken poseur whose sudden contrition doesn’t feel earned or prepared for. Michael Morgan — another of our finest actors — creates a subdued one-string sad sack of a Virgil, and the lack of energy sometimes feels infectious, though Geoffrey Kent’s kindly Sheriff Will does bring a welcome warmth to the party. Sean Scrutchins gives a strong performance as Bo, swinging from rage to sorrow in an instant. Despite her world-weariness and wealth of sexual experience, Cherie is in many ways a profound innocent herself. Wearing a tatty jacket and tight skirt, Emily Van Fleet gives a good impersonation of the woman who grew up rough, styles herself a chanteuse, and has known little tenderness from men.
The primary problem is the script, which is steeped in the sentimental culture of the ’50s. These people always feel more like constructs than human beings. It’s hard to believe in a teenager as sheltered as Elma, or that a rancher like Bo would have any compunction about shooting a deer because of its big eyes. And when Bo, finally tasting Cherie’s lips, commented: “When you kiss someone for serious, it’s kind of scary,” it was really hard not to snicker, despite a scatter of “Awwws” from the audience.
Bus Stop runs through April 15 at the Arvada Center Black Box, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada. For more information, call 720-898-7200.