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‘Bus Stop’ has lots of character

Times Staff Writer

When Hollywood set about to adapt William Inge’s hit 1955 play, “Bus Stop,” for the big screen, the studio cast Marilyn Monroe as Cherie, a young singer from the Ozarks who’s traveling west. Monroe’s curvaceous physique was a major selling point and featured prominently on the movie posters. But those familiar with the play might have noticed that the buxom star was physically mismatched for the waif whom Inge describes in his stage directions as “fragile” and possessing “the appeal of a tender little bird.”

Audiences will find a more appropriately small-boned heroine in the current revival of “Bus Stop” at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura. As Cherie, the rail-thin Angela Christian brings a sparrow-like tremulousness to a role that is the very essence of vulnerability. Her fine performance, along with equally impressive work from the rest of the ensemble cast, makes this somewhat conventional “Bus Stop” a trip worth taking.

On a wintry March night, a bus pulls up to a neon diner just outside Kansas City, Kan., and disgorges a group of cold, tired passengers. With snow closing the roads, the travelers have no choice but to hunker down and stay warm until morning. Two waitresses (Alison Coutts-Jordan and Lauren Patten) serve up coffee and pie as the hours pass and the weary lives assembled gradually reveal themselves in vivid detail.

Inge’s play is a series of jewel-like character studies that cover the spectrum of young and old, naive and cynical, romantic and disillusioned. Cherie is perhaps the most disillusioned of the bunch. She aspires to be a professional chanteuse, but she’s presently busy extricating herself from Bo Decker (Jason Chanos), a loutish cowboy who’s dragging her to his Montana ranch after a brief fling. Cherie spends most of the night trying to avoid the sex-crazed Bo, whose bullying personality keeps his fellow travelers permanently on edge.

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On the opposite side of the diner, professor Lyman (Leonard Kelly Young) pours whiskey into his lemonade and quotes tiresomely from Shakespeare. The old man lavishes attention on the younger waitress, who innocently looks on him as a father figure. Rounding out the cast are the sheriff (Steve Larkin), the frisky bus driver (Carl Palmer) and Bo’s laconic cowpoke friend Virgil (John Bennett Perry).

Director Brian McDonald juggles the characters with admirable efficiency, but he can’t quite make the play feel urgent. The pacing often stalls in between monologues, making the sense of the slow passage of time feel all too palpable for the audience, especially in the middle section.

All the more credit then to the excellent cast for fueling Inge’s bus with pure unleaded talent. Christian plays Cherie with a fascinating mix of survivalist steel and impacted self-esteem. Her performance is a tightly controlled defrosting of conflicting emotions. As Bo, Chanos makes a convincingly obnoxious rube who whoops and whistles when Cherie performs one of her musical numbers.

The rest of the cast carves out memorable portraits of weather-beaten Americana. Their individual journeys are modest and perhaps a little silly, but there’s a tragic grandeur in even the smallest lives. In the end, the brutal Midwestern wind pummels everyone equally, and the bus keeps moving with or without you.

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david.ng@latimes.com

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‘Bus Stop’

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Where: Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays

Ends: March 16

Price: $29 to $52

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Contact: (805) 667-2900

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes


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