More concerned with the interaction of his characters than bold narrative, William Inge's Bus Stop is as brilliant today as it was five decades back. Seen through the eyes of director Jackie Maxwell, the Shaw Festival production is like the fare at Grace's restaurant: the coffee couldn't be fresher, the doughnuts are day-old but still on offer, and there's no cheese to go with the ham—foreshadowing the classic Monty Python sketch—because chef doesn't like it, so never orders any.
As the play opens, the closest example of a successful relationship comes from the cowboys. Virgil Blessing (played with homespun savvy by Peter Krantz) is an old hand at herding steers. He's resigned to living in the bunkhouse rather than risking that security for the wiles of the opposite sex. He mentors twenty-one-year-old Bo Decker (Martin Harper, sincere, but requires more range) in the fine art of keeping a woman ("Girls like things t'be tender"). The rough and tumble approach isn't going so well, for Bo has literally dragged Cherie (Nicole Underhay, needs to be more in touch with her salacious side) into his company, but, despite his self-proclaimed good looks, fails to win her heart.
That threesome is on the Topeka bus, which gets stranded at the café until the road gang clears the highway from a brutal "in like a lion" storm. The only other passenger is Dr. Gerald Lyman (Norman Browning devours the part effectively), a thrice-married "purfessor" whose closest friend is Jack Daniels—consumed in copious amounts to blunt but not quell his insatiable appetite for young girls. Bus driver Carl (Guy Bannerman, just the right mix of lechery and fun) uses the cover of the layover to sample Grace's (Mary Haney, whose love of "a good fight"—now that the NHL's over-paid thugs have renewed their licence to "thrill"—seems especially apt) off-menu delights in her usually empty apartment. ("Well I got a home to go to, but there ain't anyone in it.")
Grace's helper is the over-bright student Elma (Diana Donnelly, who needs two bits more of social naïveté to balance her scholarly albatross). She pines for male attention, but the ability to recite Shakespeare's sonnets has left her dance card blank.
The play's philosopher-king is Sheriff Will Masters (Michael Ball). His constant partner is past experience, which he calls on more than his capable fists to keep the peace amongst the stranded troupe 'til dawn.
Sue LePage's set is a marvel of detail and functionality. Maxwell takes full advantage and moves the players with poise and efficiency (the only barrier being a few "stumbleweed" lines on opening night) and draws them into and out of their scenes with panache. Yet, the Devil's in the detail. Three red bandanas (Bo, Cherie and Virgil) produces an unintended subtext; Bo's quart of milk to wash down his three raw burgers is period perfect, but the skim-white liquid is a quarter-century too soon; the Franklin stove keeps everyone warm but, like a bottomless cup, never needs replenishing.
As the drama unfolds, the couples meet, pair off then learn more about themselves and each other than they'd bargained for. Inge's notion, "Once we find the fruits of success, the taste is nothing like what we had anticipated" resonates on many levels. Key to it all is the impromptu time-killing variety show. Virgil opens with a first-rate solo guitar offering, over which Bo tries to tenderize the marriage-reluctant Cherie. Next up are Dr. Lyman and Elma who attempt the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, only to have the flask-toting PhD collapse from the agony of self discovery. The Finale is Cherie's rendition of "That Old Black Magic." Tarted up in her nightclub torch song outfit, she looks convincingly sultry, but the moment is lost in a delivery that seems more appropriate for the Kiwanis Music Festival than the former chanteuse of the Blue Dragon night club.
By storm's end, more than the weather has subsided. Black-eyed Bo and Cherie have argued and sulked their way to love; Dr. Lyman has had sober second thoughts about another dip in the under-age pool; Grace and Carl look forward to future stop-overs with bed privileges ("just to keep m'self from getting' grouchy"—tears-in-your-eyes funny); Virgil abandons his smitten charge in search of other pastures and the Sheriff, well, just exits.
Anyone who has ever struggled through the turmoil of self-awareness and the inner upheaval of making a commitment—and mean it—will benefit from a stopover in Grace's café. But the trip would improve with more journey, less sentiment. JWR