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William Inge's Bus Stop still tells the truth



The vital news in William Inge's Bus Stop has reached you already. You understand that young women can still be innocent without being virgins and that young men might act brutish to compensate for sexual inexperience. Meanwhile, lonely grown-ups who nip off to bed together sometimes find warmth and relief rather than damnation.

Inge's three-act, four-square drama, now 55 years old, once dished truths that this country needed to hear. But in an age that knows no discretion, when Inge's gentle frankness offers not revelations but reminders, Bus Stop's vitality instead arrives by way of its decency. Inge draws his everyday sinners with deep patience and understanding, and in the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's warm production, director Steven Cosson does the same. The result is engaging if low-key.

The drama is set one blizzardy March night just outside Kansas City, so it's up-to-date in its way. (The opening-night crowd hmmphed with satisfaction at every local or meteorological remark.) With the highway snowed over, a quartet of troubled bus passengers find themselves waiting out the storm in a spartan diner. Among them: a drunken professor tempted by schoolgirls and a cocksure rodeo star who has dragged along a nightclub singer from the KC stockyards, against her will, vowing to marry her. Neither character is a villain; both flourish when treated by others with sympathy.

To achieve this tenderness, Cosson's production sacrifices urgency for humanity. Instead of beating their breasts, these actors hang out. As the night wears on and their characters flirt, bicker and even come to blows, the mood remains as light as the snowflakes blowing past the wide diner windows that dominate Andromache Chalfant's lifelike set.

Cosson and cast have an admirable feel for the way strangers who are stuck together alternately perform for and pretend to ignore one another. Much of the play's fun comes from watching who is paying attention to whom. Jim Gall, as a sheriff keeping tabs on the diner, reads the paper for good chunks of the first act, but his brow is like a Greek chorus, prickling at what's unfolding around him.

There's a dark radiance to Mark Robbins' turn as Dr. Lyman. As the youth-minded professor wallows in drink and poetry, Robbins is subtle about the liquor but wicked with the verse, which he doles out to young things as compliments. In the show's most amusing set piece, Lyman and the young waitress Elma — played by Blair Baker, who manages innocence without artifice — recite the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet from memory. Robbins makes clear the impurity of Lyman's motives but also the genuine joy he derives from both the poetry and the girl. Baker wins big laughs botching Juliet's lines, but her true achievement is the richness of Elma's feelings: pride at this flatterer's attention, uncertainty at his intentions, shyness about her own.

Locals Cheryl Weaver and David Fritts turn in accomplished performances as Grace, the tart owner of the diner, and Carl, the bus driver pursuing her. Rep mainstay Gary Neal Johnson, his voice vinegar-coated candy, ennobles the minor role of a cowhand who seems crotchety but turns out — maybe — wise.

All the principals have stories to work through, but the forced marriage of the nightclub singer to the cowboy takes precedence. Their scenes have dated the most since Bus Stop's premiere. Both narrate their sexual fears in that way common to the serious popular dramas of the middle of the last century. Burdened with too many lines explaining what is already clear, Adria Vitlar still finds a credible center to Cherie, an Ozarks girl turned chanteuse of the KC stockyards. But playing the brash cowboy, Jedadiah Schultz overdoes it. We never see the shyness for which this kid is overcompensating.

Bus Stop's pleasures are humble but substantial. Not the least of these is Inge's and Cosson's understanding of the fleeting and peculiar connections we strike in a world of constant transportation. We see this in the comfort these characters take in rituals: coffee, breakfast, cheery cliché.

"March is coming in like a lion," three of them say over the course of the show. I joined the Rep crowd in laughing each time — the line speaks the truth about human behavior. In the lobby before the show, people waiting for Bus Stop had been talking to one another in just that kind of hollow chitchat, with the same need of communal habit. All these years later, Inge — a native of Independence, Kansas — still shows us who we are.

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