Arts & Events

Theater Review: 'Bus Stop' at Ross Valley Players

Ken Bullock
Friday March 17, 2017 - 12:05:00 PM

One of the genuinely iconic pictures of modern Americana—and its discontents—is Edward Hopper's famed and oft-reproduced 1942 painting, 'Nighthawks,' depicting "Night + brilliant interior of cheap restaurant," as Hopper's wife Jo noted in the log they kept of each painting he did ... Four figures inside, glass all round, bathed in light as if on display to the lonely night streets of New York outside that offer stark contrast.

Thirteen years later, William Inge's play, 'Bus Stop,' became a hit on Broadway and within a year, was made into a somewhat different movie adaptation in Hollywood, also a hit, starring Marilyn Monroe. The movie's usually remembered as a star vehicle, the play as postwar Americana.  

But, like Hopper's phenomenal image, Inge's play isn't so naïve a rendering as it has seemed to be to many. The vaunted individualism of America's contrasted in both cases by its loneliness, its casual facelessness, 'Bus Stop' being set far from New York in a small town in Kansas on a freezing, snowy night.
And it plays off milieu drama too, in that half of its characters are transients who don't know each other, except for two cowboys—and the new (and apparently former) fiancée of one of them, a saloon singer who barely has met the young rodeo star who insists she'll marry him and move to remote Montana.
Those locals in the café where the bus pulls in to wait out the worst of a storm that's shut down the roads are better acquainted, but no less isolated—the small town young woman, bubbling with curiosity, waiting tables; her boss, the café's "patronne;" the local sheriff ...
And all are lonely, reaching out in one way or another for contact, while watching the sometimes comic, sometimes sordid spectacle, a battle of earnestness and indecision between bronco buster and bar singer.
Ross Valley Players, one of the longest-running community theaters in the state, producing in the venerable Barn at the old Marin Art & Garden Center for decades, has mounted a pretty satisfying version of one of the central plays by the playwright who, with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, was often thought of as one of the important American playwrights of the 50s and early 60s.
Bookending the action are two troupers, Mary Ann Rogers as Grace, owner of the counter restaurant and scene of the action, and Aeron Macintyre as Virgil, "Virg," mentor to Bo (played with boisterousness andsensitivity by Andrew Morris), the headstrong cowboy. Grace is a local, Virg traveling through—though they close the action of the play together, Virg become a drifter who Grace shuts out in the cold when she closes shop.
(And Virg provides a couple brief musical interludes, one by singing a Hank Williams classic.)
The duos or couples, some overlapping, are a curiosity—besides Virg and Bo, Grace and waitress Elma (a vibrant Ariana Mahallati), there's the ruffled lovebirds, Bo and Cherie (played with humor by Laura Peterson as a country girl just citified enough to resist the country's loneliness in favor of the city's), Elma and itinerant declared ex-professor Dr. Lyman (Ron Dritz, alternating spouting Shakespeare, swigging from a mickey and expressing self-contempt)—and Grace and Carl, the bus driver, carrying on a little offstage ... Steve Price as Sheriff Will Masters is the only loner onstage—and the only one really committed to his job—except, perhaps, when he reluctantly has to mix it up with fractious Bo.
The chance milieu of travelers and locals, a temporary community, is what gives the play its drama and relevance, the individual characters pairing off explore and often reverse their stereotypes. And it's the sense of ensemble that the cast, directed by Christian Haines, brings to the drama of an unfamiliar collective that, by accident, falls together and stands revealed as individuals that makes this production worth seeing. The show's running two more weekends.
Fridays, Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 2 at The Barn, Marin Art & Garden Center, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard at Lagunitas Road, Ross (Drake Blvd.west from 580 after Richmond-San Rafael Bridge at San Quentin), $12-$27— or call (415) 456-9555