Diner dashing 

Montana Rep's Bus Stop offers dynamic charm

In the ABC series "Lost," a plane crashes on an island and the surviving strangers must band together against the external and often magical forces of the place. Like any plot device, it's contrived, but it's so easy to love the structure: These characters have no real escape (at least, at first), resulting in intense moments of heroism and cruelty by people pushed to their limits. Of course, "Lost" gets lost in its own device madness. Even if you love the show you have to admit that the island becomes the true character while the characters became vehicles for symbolism.

A refreshingly simpler device emerges in William Inge's Bus Stop (1955), a play that uses the force of a storm to randomly strand eight people in a roadside diner 30 miles West of Kansas City. Unlike "Lost" (or horror movies that use similar devices), it's the interaction between the characters' personalities that keeps the story dynamic.

click to enlarge Montana Rep’s touring production of Bus Stop includes, from left, Erin Mae Johnson, Matt Warner, Hannah Kanengieter and Jackson Palmer.
  • Montana Rep’s touring production of Bus Stop includes, from left, Erin Mae Johnson, Matt Warner, Hannah Kanengieter and Jackson Palmer.

Montana Repertory Theatre's production of Bus Stop hits the stage this week to kick off its national tour. As is the case with so many of Montana Rep's professional plays, it showcases a powerful cast. More than that, under Jere Lee Hodgin's direction, it never gets too wrapped up in superficial comedy or sinks too far into melancholy—something for which other stagings of the play have been criticized.

The lights come up on the inside of Grace's diner, where Grace and her waitress niece, Elma, notice the phone lines are down. A bus arrives on the street outside (set at the back of the stage), and you can glimpse the diner sign flapping in the storm. Here's where the details of Bill Raoul's scenic design really make an impression. The flapping sign provides a constant reminder of storminess—like the whistling teapot gimmick but better because it's fresh and subtle. The diner interior is classic 1950's design without being kitschy, and the high-up shelves of plants—cacti and such—give an original touch to the diner cliché.

As the four occupants of the bus blow in through the door, you start to get the gist of the story. There's Cherie, the pretty and bewildered nightclub singer; Bo, a handsome and burly rodeo rider who's taking Cherie to his Montana ranch to marry her, oblivious to her unwillingness; Virgil, Bo's father-figure mentor; and Dr. Gerald Lyman, a college philosophy professor with a penchant for booze and young girls. Carl, the macho bus driver, and Will, the mostly level-headed sheriff, also get involved with the drama, which includes lustful trysts, heartfelt wooing, fights and other antics. A lot happens, but not in any action-movie kind of way. Like any good story, the characters transform by the end—some more subtly than others.

Hannah Kanengieter played Audrey in last year's Leading Ladies with impeccable comedic timing, and it's no different with Cherie. Here, she takes the dumb-blonde stereotype and reinvents it with hilarity and woeful depth. Her situation is silly on the surface: A woman with glamorous dreams finds herself on a bus with a Montana hick against her will, but not exactly kidnapped. The hick, Jackson Palmer's Bo, is strapping and not too bright. He's a bit of a cliché in the first act—though if you went to high school in Montana, you'll find his character totally probable—and he's more three-dimensional later on, with highly entertaining consequences.

This is a story about circumstance and attraction. There's a kinetic energy between the swaggering bus driver, Carl, played by Andy Meyers and the smoky-voiced Grace, played by Aleks Malejs. It's light fun, but also a biological experiment: two people cross each other's path enough and you can get dynamite.

Then there are the lone rangers. The commonsense sheriff grounds the drama in this play more than any other character, and Rick Martino could probably pass himself off as a small-town sheriff for the way he disappears into his character. Virgil, on the other hand, is the secret weapon of the play. He's the stoic rancher who plays guitar and gives good advice, but, at the end—and I won't give it away by saying this—you get the sense that maybe this was a story about him all along. It's a startling moment.

Bus Stop is also about starting over. Erin Mae Johnson hits Elma's earnest desire for adventure with perfection. She's especially hilarious when it comes to one of the highlights of the show—a rendition of the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene. It's Matt Warner, however, who adds nuance to this entire play as the professor with a questionable interest in Elma. Despite that ick factor, Warner's portrayal of the ruddy-faced, charming man tilts him deliciously on the edge of disaster. His desire for love and a blank slate is so palpable, it's almost hard to bear.

"Lost," symbolizes large themes and occupies a truly other world. But Bus Stop inhabits a familiar setting to all of us—a diner—where people are just people, in all their comic and tragic ways.

Bus Stop continues at the Montana Theatre in the PARTV Center Thursday, Jan 27—Saturday, Jan. 29 and Tuesday, Feb. 1—Thursday, Feb. 3, and Saturday, Feb. 5 at 7:30 PM nightly, with a 2 PM matinee Saturday, Jan. 29. $20/$16 seniors and students/$10 for children 12 and under.

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