You could call Madison Repertory Theatre's new production of Bus Stop a revival of a revival. The Rep first staged this show, which was written in the mid-1950s, in 1980. Now, nearly thirty years later, the Rep is giving Bus Stop another ride. Of course, the question any revival begs is this: Is this play worth revisiting? Does it have lasting value?
Some consider Bus Stop an American classic, yet it's both timeless and a little dated. Set in a Kansas diner during a blizzard in 1955, William Inge's play takes place during the time in which he wrote it. For contemporary theatergoers, however, something set in a '50s diner almost inevitably has a retro tinge to it, right down to the vintage product signs on the walls in Joe Varga's attractive and detailed set. Bus Stop is no longer a play set in the present, but in a clearly defined past.
The plot is simple: a bus headed west out of Kansas City, Missouri, has to make a longer-than-planned stopover at a small-town diner. An early March snowstorm has closed the highways, phones are down, and travel to Topeka will have to wait. Presiding over the diner are Grace, the owner, and Elma, her teenage waitress. The other local is Sheriff Will Masters, a gruff but steady guy.
The stranded bus riders shake up an otherwise deserted night at the diner. There's Cherie, a nightclub floozy with big dreams; Bo, an unsteady young buck of a cowboy and his fatherly friend, Virgil; bus driver Carl; and Dr. Lyman, a troubled college professor.
"I am a drunken, unruly child," slurs Dr. Lyman, who's been spiking his lemon sodas with hard liquor from his jacket pocket. He's right. Despite his impressive education -- Chicago, Oxford, Harvard -- Lyman has made an utter mess of his life. He can't hold down a job, has three failed marriages in his wake and also takes an unhealthy interest in teen girls. As played by L. Joe Dahl, Lyman is entertaining to watch as he vacillates between lofty literary talk and general falling-apart.
Young cowboy Bo (Colin Woolston) is the other unstable force in the diner; he blows in with bravado, yet we learn that his arrogance masks insecurity and a lack of knowledge about relating to others.
The danger of Inge's script is that at times the characters are reduced to types: the nave young waitress, the stern sheriff, the trampy but sweet nightclub singer, and so forth. Yet, as these characters form relationships and reveal themselves over the course of a snowy evening, we learn what their surfaces are masking.
Director Trevin Gay has the challenge of keeping things dynamic while the characters are confined to the same limited space; occasionally, the staging is a bit too static. Yet there are some fine performances: D.J. Howard is nicely understated as wise cowboy Virgil, and West High junior Sarah Maslin holds her own among more experienced cast mates as the young waitress Elma.
I imagine that some of the revelations in Bus Stop would have seemed a little more frank or shocking in 1955, but they don't now. Instead, what Bus Stop offers is an ever-shifting character study of eight lives. Whether that's enough, audiences will have to decide.