Gothic North’s production of Bus Stop suffers in the details
A good performance of William Inge’s Bus Stop is a lot like a good jazz tune. Like musical instruments, the characters all have distinct personalities, but as an ensemble, they create a touching love story that is raw and beautiful. Like jazz musicians, each character gets ample time to step into the spotlight for a solo performance, but the essential rhythm and melody are never lost.
Gothic North Theater’s production of Bus Stop, directed by Julie Robertson, features some excellent solo performances by accomplished artists, but the end result is just slightly out of tune.
The play takes place in a diner in small-town Kansas, where a fierce storm has delayed a busload of passengers on their way to Topeka. Grace (Pat Halverson) and her young employee, Elma (15-year-old Katie Judge), keep the travelers full of coffee and donuts while they wait out the storm overnight. The passengers include an alcoholic professor with an eye for teenage girls, a young, rowdy cowboy, his older, wiser buddy and a nightclub singer who has been practically kidnapped by the young cowboy in the name of love.
Gothic North’s set captures the warmth of a 1955 Midwestern diner very well, with beige plaid tablecloths, pale green walls accented with wooden baseboards and a lit candle on every table. The tiny details add a nice touch; I especially liked a small wooden plaque that reads: “You who think you know it all are very annoying to those of us who do.”
This plaque could have been placed there just for the professor, Dr. Lyman, played by Gothic North founder David Zybert. Zybert captures Lyman’s swings between educated pomposity and heart-wrenching fragility with graceful ease, inspiring sympathy and scorn simultaneously.
Jonathan Sholes plays a pretty good Bo, the loud-mouthed yet innocent young cowboy, and his imposing size and height fit his character well. Phil Harriman is also well-cast in the role of Sheriff Will Masters, a kind-hearted officer who’s not afraid to whip some common sense into Bo.
Halverson as Grace and Howard Sternberg as Carl, the bus driver, also do decent work with their somewhat limited time on stage. Halverson is believable as a waitress; she absent-mindedly brushes crumbs off tables as she speaks, and her world-weary sense of humor combines well with her Southern twang.
A real stand-out performance, though, was almost overlooked in Gary Helmers. Helmers plays Virgil, Bo’s lonesome, gentle mentor, and he does so with a quiet intensity and wisdom that doesn’t really shine until the second act. The young Alixandra J. Dewitt as the beleaguered nightclub singer, Cherie, is also one to keep an eye on.
With all these strong performances, it’s a pity that awkward transitions and a weak leading actress kept distracting me from the story. Judge’s portrayal of the young waitress, Elma, is almost uniformly stiff and unexpressive. Gothic North perpetuates an annoying trend here, in which the ingénue character is not merely artless, but seemingly brainless and devoid of feeling as well.
And then there are moments of poor direction; often, when Elma enters or leaves the room, she has no good reason to do so. She just suddenly materializes to listen to another character’s monologue, and then retreats to the back again when the speech is over.
Like the little wooden plaque on the wall, these little details really make a performance. Unfortunately, Gothic North didn’t sweat the small stuff, and the big picture suffered.