In “Bus Stop,” William Inge takes a cross-section of types and gathers them in a rural Kansas diner that serves travelers needing refreshments or a toilet. While the most memorable characters from the 1956 movie with Marilyn Monroe are a randy cowboy and the nightclub stripper he carries off, sans consent, to marry and ensconce as the mistress of his Montana ranch, “Bus Stop” works best when presented as an ensemble piece with all stories being equal and intertwined in a way that reflects the variety of people who make up Americana. These include the cowboy and one of his ranch hands; Cherie, the stripper who has been on her own since the age of 14; a college professor; and the denizens of the Kansas town where the main source of entertainment is the passengers alighting from each idling bus.
Though Grant Struble frequently dominates Susan D. Atkinson’s staging of “Bus Stop” for Bristol Riverside Theater as the cowboy, the director makes an attempt to give each character fair due. She succeeds in holding the audience’s interest and provides a good deal of entertainment and humor, but her approach makes Inge’s play seem more episodic, a string of separate stories, than fluid and interwoven. The effect doesn’t minimize Inge’s point about everyone having to fend as a solitary ship in a crowded world, or prevent one from listening with interest in each character’s tale, but it keeps Atkinson’s production from acquiring a palpable theatrical mood or intensity.
Atkinson’s “Bus Stop” plays on one steady level. It has no high points or moments that compel or rivet. All is depicted competently, but nothing soars or touches you emotionally. You react, but without deep empathy or regard for anyone’s situation. Even Inge’s cold, realistic ending triggers no note of pathos or pity. Only quiet understanding. Everything, including a fight between the cowboy, Bo, and the town sheriff, or the resolution of Bo and Cherie’s romantic standoff, is taken in matter-of-factly. It registers. You enjoy watching it, but you’re not moved or excited by it. The element of involvement Atkinson spun so well in 2014’s “Tuesdays with Morrie” is missing, so this “Bus Stop,” though consistently admirable in its acting and clarity, never absorbs or captivates.
Perhaps that has to do the calm, quiet manner in which all the characters, except Struble’s cowboy, go about their business. The cultured professor with a pedophile bent and resistance to authority (Mark Jacoby) tells about his three failed marriages, fatal contretemps with deans, and love of Shakespeare in an almost lulling way. An Inge joke or a moment of self-effacement might leaven the professor’s litany, but nothing he says horrifies, disgusts, or even amuses to any great degree. Even when you see the teenage waitress, Elma (Linda Elizabeth, the best in the cast), succumbing to the professor’s well-practiced but dubious charms, you are less alarmed than convinced this sensible young woman will see through the flirtation or be saved in time by the sheriff (Mike Boland) or her boss, Grace (Barbara McCulloh), the owner of the diner.
Cherie generates no deeper reaction. Played well by Jessica Wagner, who shows a completely different set of acting gifts from those she displayed so prodigiously in “Always.Patsy Cline,” Cherie certainly occupies you with her tale of leaving her rural Southern town at 14 and maturing via many tawdry adult experiences in the five years since, but at no point do you want to embrace Cherie and compensate for the childhood she missed. Nor are you reviled or shocked by much she has to say. Wagner presents a Cherie who can take care of herself. She conveys her toughness and vulnerability, but not enough to turn your objectivity into affection or concern.
While you buy into the cowboy’s attraction to Cherie and have some reason to recoil at Bo’s brazen, possessive manner of wooing, you never see signs of romance or sexual stirrings from either Struble or Wagner. Ardor is in Inge’s story, but it doesn’t emerge on the Bristol stage. Even when each character settles into calm reason, and a relationship between them seems possible, you don’t see a moment in which Wagner’s Cherie turns from being afraid and repelled by Bo to feeling some tenderness toward him. Struble’s transition from juvenile bully to sincere romancer is more obvious, but his Bo never looks with delight or caring at Cherie. His passion doesn’t evolve into compassion, and Cherie’s consideration about whether to accept Bo seems to come more from directions in Inge’s script than from her heart.
Because Inge’s story is so strong, and Atkinson depicts its details so plainly, you remain curious and stay attentive to doings on stage, but conclusions, hopeful or melancholy, have no impact. They satisfy a desire to know more than they touch a nerve or elicit an emotional response.
Tall, lean, and muscular, Struble looks every inch the callow cowboy who without finesse is about to approach a woman he wants to take him seriously. Struble gets Bo’s rawness right and seems genuinely chastised when he finally listens to what experienced men tell him.
Linda Elizabeth, as a teen fascinated by the colorful characters in her midst, gives a natural performance that makes you care for Elma and see her strength. Barbara McCulloh also seems natural and shows great range as Grace. Mark Jacoby effectively displays erudition and self-loathing as the professor. Mike Boland conveys wise authority as the sheriff. Bruce Sabath and Dave Sitler do well as Bo’s companion and the bus driver. Sabath is also handy on the guitar.
Nels Anderson’s set captures the feel of a roadside diner. Linda Bee Stockton’s costumes are particularly fine for the period and the characters. The fight Rick Sordelet stages is one moment that rouses you from a relaxed, contented following of “Bus Stop” to intent involvement.
Bus Stop, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, October 18, Wednesday through Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, 2 p.m., and Sunday, 3 p.m. $37 to $47. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.