William Inge's "Bus Stop" was the very first play staged at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre in 1962, so it's fitting that its new production of "Bus Stop" recently had its opening night 50 years to the day of that theater-opening production's opening night.
This compact in-the-round theater in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood might not seem like the most promising space in which to produce plays, but the Spotlighters has a half-century record of creatively making the most of its basement-level theater. Being right on top of the action for this "Bus Stop" means that you practically share in the late-night meal being served to the bus passengers stranded by a blizzard at a desolate Midwestern cafe in 1955.
The highly realistic set design by Alan Zelma qualifies as the real star of this production. Not only is the restaurant set filled with Eisenhower-era furnishings, calendars, advertisements and other period decor, but a working kitchen just behind the counter enables the restaurant staff to rustle up actual meals of eggs, coffee and other diner fare. Watching the steam rise from a plate of eggs sure puts you in the right frame of stomach, er, mind for the play.
Although Inge's melodrama seems creaky in places, it still delivers the goods. As the argumentative characters wait out the storm, they open up about their mostly unrealized hopes and dreams. Fortunately, not everything is grim. Inge also finds plenty of homespun humor in the material.
That blend of comedy and drama is nicely encapsulated in the relationship between Cherie (Rachel Verhaaren), a Kansas City nightclub singer, and Bo Decker (James Morton), the Montana rancher determined to have her as his girlfriend.
Indeed, Cherie insists that she has been abducted by Bo. The fact of the matter is that both characters are so young and naive that all of their shouting seems less likely to lead to violence than to some kind of eventual understanding.
Of course, there is a lot of pushing, shoving and yelling along the way.
Bo's older and wiser friend, Virgil Blessing (Robert Scott Hitcho), tries to calm Bo down; and Sheriff Will Masters (Richard Brandt), who is the entire police department in the town where the restaurant is located, threatens to arrest Bo unless the young rancher calms down.
Two additional calming influences are Grace Hoylard (Carol DeLisle), the no-nonsense yet good-hearted middle-aged owner of the restaurant; and Elma Duckworth (Erin Hanratty), the young waitress who will receive her share of tips about human nature during this long night.
Besides letting Cherie and Bo duke it out in enjoyable comic melodrama mode, Inge develops several other plot strands. One involves the quasi-romance between Grace and the bus driver, Carl (Steve Izant). Let's just say this particular bus makes regular stops at her cafe. Another plot strand involves a rather mysterious passenger on the bus, Dr. Gerald Lyman (Jose Teneza), a college professor whose Shakespeare-laced dialogue really makes him stand out from the plain-speaking folks.
These people have a lot of issues to work out while waiting for the bus to get back on the snowy road at dawn, and it's actually welcome that the playwright is so leisurely in tracking their relationships. You get to settle in with these characters.
The capable Spotlighters cast directed by Fuzz Roark is led by Verhaaren, who embodies Cherie's nervous energy, and Morton, who conveys Bo's dangerously brash personality. They obviously grab your attention and hold it throughout the play, but the performance that sneaks up on you is how completely DeLisle inhabits the role of Grace; she incisively balances Grace's toughness and kindness.
Throwing this production's realistic tone off a bit is Teneza's overly mannered performance as Dr. Gerald Lyman. This artsy character admittedly is meant to sound pompous, but Teneza slides into caricature.
Just as Lyman turns out to possess a few secrets of his own, the other characters also gradually reveal things that make this bus stop an educational experience for them and also for you. Besides providing food for thought, the play may prompt you to search for a diner serving late-night breakfast.
"Bus Stop" runs through Nov. 11 at Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street in Baltimore. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20, $18 for seniors, $16 for military and students. Call 410-752-1225 or go to http://www.spotlighters.org.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times