The play Bus Stop, presented by the Huntington Theatre Company through October 17th, is filled with an unexpected sort of optimism. Originally produced in 1955, it was one of four major plays written by William Inge (1913-1973), and perhaps his most comedic. The Huntington’s production is nostalgic without being stuck in the past. A brightly lit, colorful set and sparkling ’50s costumes depict an idyllic place of the past, yet the program cover pictures all of the actors smiling at us, dressed in contemporary clothing, inviting us to see these characters as inhabitants of our time, too.
The play follows events late one night when a snowstorm finds eight people stranded at a bus stop diner in rural Kansas. Most of the men who come in off the bus initially seem wholly unlikable. There is the oft-divorced professor, Dr. Lyman, who is traveling the country drinking to celebrate his freedom; the bus driver Carl, who, stranded for the night, wastes no time in propositioning the diner’s owner Grace; and the unbelievably arrogant cowboy, Bo, who marches in to assert his dominance over Cherie, his unwilling fiancée. Yet as the night progresses and true colors begin to bleed through, our expectations are changed. Dr. Lyman’s tremendous unhappiness is revealed, and though his actions are imprudent we somehow feel more empathetic than angry. Carl’s intentions turn out to be sweeter than they first seem. And Bo, whose initial bravado is the most off-putting, slowly sheds his youthful arrogance as he begins to learn what it is to be a man.
One of the best moments in the Huntington’s production comes when Elma, the diner’s youthfully enthusiastic employee, and a drunken Dr. Lyman entertain the others with a re-enactment of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. It is delightfully funny to watch, especially when a despondent Bo declares Romeo makes him want to “give up” on love. But there is a serious undertone, as we watch the inappropriate affections of Dr. Lyman for Elma grow to an uncomfortable degree, and the tensions between Bo and Cherie erupt in anger. All of the acting is great, but Ronete Levenson’s earnestness as Elma is especially strong, and the depth of her tenderness towards Dr. Lyman is quite moving.
The characters in Bus Stop are stuck in the diner, and yet it feels like a place we’d want to be. Snow falls gently outside, which makes the glowing, cozy warmth of the diner seem all the more appealing. It evokes wistfulness, a longing for a place that shelters rather than confines. It’s an environment that throws a positive light on these troubled characters, so that we see them with a sort of romanticized fondness, and view their struggles with humor rather than sadness. We see their naïveté and flaws, but in the end we smile at their goodness and humanity. And yet, Inge’s conclusion does not tie things up quite so simply. For all the happiness, he reminds us before the sun rises on this cold winter morning, there is incredible sorrow as well. As the play draws to a close, a harmonica plays and tugs at our heartstrings, and we realize that loneliness cannot always be cured.