Students on small-town detour

by Amy Kingsley

In William Inge’s Bus Stop, March comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb and makes refugees out of lost souls unlucky enough to be trundling through its late winter nights.

There are only four passengers on the last bus from Kansas City that stops in Gracie’s Diner late one night in early March. It’s an unscheduled stop, their visit to Gracie’s, one forced by a howling blizzard that’s blocked the road to Topeka.

When we first meet the proprietor, Grace Hoylard (Ciera Payton), she’s pounding on her telephone, trying to ring the operator. The phones are down and the road won’t be cleared for hours, says Sheriff Will Masters (Paul Duran). The bus and its passengers will be spending the night with Grace and her adolescent waitress Elma Duckworth (Robyn Rikoon), a character written with so much Midwestern earnestness you’d think she sprung from the pen of Garrison Keillor.

It’s not that these residents of small town Kansas don’t have their own problems. We find out early on that Grace’s husband has left her. But they’re a group that’s comfortable in their own skin and in the ordered confines of their prairie outpost.

Of course, their lives get a little disordered when the passengers pass one-by-one through Gracie’s frosted door. First they meet the shrieking Cherie (Veronica Dominczyk), a self-described chanteuse who might or might not be engaged in seedier methods of profiteering, on the run from a lusty fiancé.

Then the high-falutin’ Dr. Gerald Lyman comes in, orders a bottle of lemon soda and promptly drowns it in whiskey. Lyman’s attention to Duckworth feels wrong from the start, even though he cloaks his come-ons in Shakespeare. When bus driver Carl (David Lopez) insinuates that Lyman might be running from something, it’s easy to imagine that the good professor might have a few peccadilloes to atone for.

So things aren’t exactly calm at Gracie’s when Bo Decker (Matteo Eckerle) walks through the doors. Decker is all sinews and verve, and he’s got it bad for Cherie. So bad, in fact, that he strong-armed her onto the bus that’ll zip the two of them – plus friend Virgil Blessing – up to his Montana ranch and, by extension, to connubial bliss.

And that is essentially the plot of ***Bus Stop***. Without the weather tethering her to Gracie’s, Cherie would just run away from her beau. Instead she’ll be trapped overnight in the small diner with the man whose ardent attentions she’d rather not have.

All this is playing out on the Patrons Theatre at North Carolina School of the Arts, an intimate space that seats about 100. On a Sunday afternoon, the bleachers groan under the weight of a full house.

Bus Stop is a play about the therapeutic benefits of claustrophobia. The set opens toward the audience with three dingy walls and a pressed tin ceiling that converge on a set of upstage windows. The overall affect is oppressive.

Inge’s thesis is that people can change. The playwright never publicly acknowledged his homosexuality, suffered from depression and alcoholism and committed suicide at age 60 after a series of professional failures.Bus Stop’s Dr. Lyman is widely believed to be Inge’s fictional counterpart.

Inge’s fate – and his inability to beat back his own demons – makes the gentle optimism of Bus Stop more poignant. The boy from Independence, Kan. believed in the healing properties of small town life.

By the time Carl pulls out, Inge’s characters have all undergone a transformation. The weather relents, the road to Topeka clears and Sheriff Masters sends off his charges with a warning about slick roads ahead.

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