Bus Stop: Princeton, Topeka and points beyond

Upstart Crow’s latest a study in relativity

Michael Gurshtein as Bo Decker and Kristy Pike as Cherie.
Photo by Sutherland Studios

Einstein stated it most elegantly with his explications of the theretofore ineffable mysteries of the space-time continuum, “Everything is relative.” Despite the human yearning for black-and-white absolutes, anyone who’s ever been in love knows with certainty that hours in the arms of a paramour are mere minutes, but minutes away from that Adonis or Aphrodite are agonizing days. The tiniest speck on the horizon can turn out to be a towering mountain. And the same play, viewed from different perspectives, can at once fascinate and frustrate.

William Inge’s Bus Stop, which the Upstart Crow’s signage clearly states has nothing to do with Boulder’s own long-established and much-beloved gentleman’s club of the same name, tells the tale of a group of strangers thrust together on a dark and stormy night in rural Kansas in the winter of 1955. Neither a Greyhound metal-and-glass modernity nor an open-sided enclosure on the side of the road, this bus stop is a cozy, small-town diner owned by maternal yet feisty Grace (Joan Kuder Bell) and staffed, on this particular night, by genial high school student Elma (Anna R. Vernier).

A blizzard has closed the road ahead and knocked out the phone lines, so Sheriff Will (Dan Doherty) informs the bus driver, Carl (John Taylor), that he and his riders will be camping out at Grace’s diner for at least a few hours. First off the bus is Cherie (Kristy E. Pike), a night club singer who claims she’s being abducted by Bo (Michael Gurshtein), a volatile young cowboy bent on marrying her. Cherie is followed by Dr. Lyman (Jim Valone), a former college professor turned wayward wanderer full of flowery language and liquor in equal measures. Eventually, Bo and his old friend and cooler head, Virgil (Jeffrey William Hill), join the others.

My first reaction after seeing Bus Stop was that it was a rather predictable and somewhat dated slice-of-life dramedy. Its look and feel are excellent, from the five-cent coffee and operator-assisted phone calls to the outhouse and potbellied stove. But its plotlines are equally outmoded, lacking any twists or turns. They forge ahead with the linearity and inevitability of a train rather than the relative randomness of over-the-road travel. From the moment each conflict or opportunity is introduced, its resolution is apparent. One waits to be surprised or challenged by the outcomes, but for all but one token, play-redeeming character, everything winds up tied up with pretty bows.

And then, completely out of the blue over brunch the afternoon after the performance, my buddy’s mother chimes in that she saw Bus Stop years ago in college and thought it was a wonderful piece of theater. For her, Bus Stop succeeds as a snapshot of a simpler time. She is thankful that the story arcs flow in obvious directions to expected ends. Where I see hopeless naiveté she sees sparkling innocence. And, minor spoiler alert, when I note that the tryst between Grace and Carl was one of the funniest bits in the show, she points out that in 1955 — and for many years after — portraying their afternoon delight so openly was groundbreaking and risk-taking. Well said, Connie.

It seems unarguable, then, that whether you give Bus Stop two thumbs up or a resounding “meh” will depend mostly on your mindset (as dictated by your age, geographical upbringing, personal history, education and the like). This play, even more than some, is cut whole cloth from its creator’s experiences. Inge was from rural Kansas, he was a Pulitzer Prize winner and an alcoholic (see the character of Dr. Lyman), and he fought depression until his suicide at the age of 60 (see the desperation of both Bo and Cherie as well as the underlying cynicism of much of the play).

While the Upstart Crow gets everything right with its set and casting choices, I feel that Bus Stop would benefit from one more spit shine. Especially early on, many lines of dialogue were lost, as cast members failed to project their voices into the by-no-means expansive auditorium, and the number of line misreadings was higher than ideal.

For anyone hankering for a night in Middle America during the middle of the 20th century, Bus Stop is a choice destination. Audiences seeking something avant-garde or mind-expanding, however, may wish to look elsewhere.

Bus Stop plays through Sept. 14 at the Dairy Center for the Arts. 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, 303-440-7826. Tickets start at $21. Visit www.theupstartcrow.org for more information.

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