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Stop, Look, and Listen

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of William Inge's Bus Stop is worth the trip from anywhere.

Nell Geisslinger and Tyler Layton in Bus Stop
(© Jenny Graham)
Ashland, Oregon is a charming little town encircled by stunning mountains -- but I wouldn't be here if not for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I've heard about the wonders of this place for as long as I can remember -- though not as far back as 1935, when a teacher named Angus Bowmer started the enterprise. He asked the town if he could use a moribund outdoor theater to stage a couple of Shakespeare plays there. The town fathers were worried that he wouldn't do business, so they scheduled boxing matches there, too. Score one for our side: Shakespeare drew the crowds, and the boxers took their lumps in playing to mostly empty seats.

These days, OSF presents more than 780 performances annually with attendance of approximately 360,000. There are 325 full-time employees, 175 part-timers, and no fewer than 500 volunteers. Best of all, there are now three theaters, one named after Bowmer, who ran the place through the 1970 season. Next to it is an outdoor theater built in 1959 to replace the original and done in an Elizabethan style (which is why it's called the Elizabethan). Similarly, the new theater on the block is the New Theatre, where more experimental work is done.

As you'd expect, a playwright named William is currently being very well served at the OSF. But, right now, in addition to three fine productions of the Bard's work, it's attending to William Inge even better: Bus Stop, the playwright's 1955 hit, is receiving a marvelous production, thanks to director Libby Appel. She knows just what to do with this study of a pit-stop in the armpit of Kansas.

Grace owns the greasy spoon in question, and Elma is her young, eager-to-please waitress. As Sheriff Masters finishes his coffee, Carl drives up in his bus, knowing he and his passengers will spend some hours here during a road-closing snowstorm. The first to rush in is Cherie, a self-proclaimed "chanteuse" who met wild-and-wooly cowboy Bo Decker at the nightclub where she sang. For Bo, it was love at first sight; for Cherie, well, she still doesn't know what it was, but she's now determined to leave the galoot. Inge has her describe him so fearfully that we're afraid to meet him, too.

Also on board is Gerald Lyman, Ph.D. who impresses Elma with his knowledge of the Bard. (Yes, this play is a fitting entry for a Shakespeare Festival!) Elma, having played Juliet in high school, soon does the balcony scene with him. That's not, however, all Lyman would like to do with her, although the poor naive kid can't see it. Indeed, Lyman's keeping a dark secret, which the audience might learn earlier if Bo hadn't barreled in. The impetuous 21-year-old soon infers that Cherie plans to bolt. Even though Bo's older-and-wiser pal Virgil tries to calm him, the explosive kid won't hear of it. He's used to getting things his way.

Theatergoers certainly get things their way on this 7/8ths-of-a-circle stage. As Bo, Danforth Comins is arresting from the moment he enters and is told to "Shut the door!" He doesn't because he's too single-minded to hear the admonition. Comins' Bo has the confidence of one who owns acres of Montana land. Yet he has the vulnerability that suggests he could cry at any moment - and the character's most vital: Cherie slept with him, so he's sure she must love him. To paraphrase another Shakespeare, will this be The Taming of the Non-Shrew?

Tyler Layton gives Cherie tired eyes that have seen too much. "Bo takes hold of a woman as if he's Napoleon," she says, while managing to convey that Cherie isn't sure what Napoleon would do. The actress has her big moment-of-truth when she must tell Bo that she isn't whom he thought she was. Yet how pleased she looks when Bo admits that she's his first-ever love, flattered that she's the woman who finally made him decide to make a move.

As Dr. Lyman, Robert Sicular beautifully becomes a man for whom time is running out, not only because he's aging, but also because his past is catching up with him. When Elma says she "sees nothing wrong him," he says, "Young people never do" with a world-weariness that gets a groan of recognition from audience members who have been-there, felt-that.

Most extraordinary of all is Nell Geisslinger as Elma, desperate to experience the world outside. When she says she can't wait to see "the Kansas City Symphony," she permeates the words with longing and respect. Notice her unquenchable thirst for knowledge, urgently asking questions of the older-and-supposedly-wiser Lyman. Rarely do we get as stunning a portrait of a little mouse who's aching to leave her hole-in-the-wall.

As the craggy and laconic Virgil, Mark Murphey has a Will Rogers smirk and a need for Bo that matches the kid's need for him. Give Murphey extra credit for playing a splendid country guitar, and keeping up the suddenly inappropriate four-square rhythm when Cherie sings, "That Old Black Magic." Jeffrey King brings to life the type of lawman who understands and respects the rules. (Mister, we could use a man like Sheriff Masters again.) As Grace, Shona Tucker conveys a seen-it-all veteran who nevertheless displays a hunger to see something more. Tyrone Wilson makes Carl a man who not only wants to be liked by everyone, but loved by someone.

If you feel you've seen Bus Stop from the famous 1956 Marilyn Monroe film, you haven't. That movie gives 64 minutes of backstory before it arrives where the play starts. Then, 32 minutes later (and two characters fewer), it's over. Meanwhile, Inge's warm, human study and Appel's production are worth a trip to Ashland from anywhere -- even by bus.


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