Theater Review - Off the bus

Soul-stice looks for love in low-key Bus Stop

For its eighth annual project, Soul-stice Repertory does something a little different. The troupe will mount four plays with Death of a Salesman and A Midsummer Night's Dream falling under The Classic Series designation. The group's New Lab Series will be dedicated to less familiar, rarely performed works, presenting Anton Chekhov's first play Ivanov and William Inge's Bus Stop.

The production of Bus Stop seems little different from Soul-stice's business as usual. The group describes the Lab Series as offering a "stripped-down" approach to the plays, but at its regular home in the intimate Back Stage space at 7 Stages, Soul-stice usually offers a bare-bones, text-oriented approach. For whatever justification, Bus Stop is a low-key but welcome show, inconsistently performed but quietly charming by the end.

Best known for the 1956 Marilyn Monroe film adaptation, Bus Stop takes place in a one-horse town near Topeka, Kan., where a handful of bus passengers and the driver are stranded by wintry conditions that close the roads. They bide their time at a greasy spoon owned by Grace (Pat Bell), a casually independent woman. If Grace's Diner had a jukebox, it'd probably play "Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places," fitting not only the milieu but Inge's theme of choice, as most of the characters are seeking romance, companionship or physical gratification.

Grace has an off-stage hook-up with good ole boy Carl (Anthony Rodriguez), the bus driver. Dr. Lyman (John Countryman), a tipsy intellectual, has a more than avuncular interest in the waitress Elma (Samantha Bentley), a precocious high-schooler. Most of our attention, however, goes to Cherie (Chloe Sehr), a nightclub "chantoose" being shanghaied to Montana by Bo (Marcus Hester), an amorous rodeo champ.

At first it's uncertain if Bo's a violent brute or a big-talking pushover, and though he makes an angry ruckus, he's kept in check by his buddy Virgil (Randy Weinstein) and the town sheriff Will (Jeff Feldman, in Gary Cooper mode).

At times the cast, directed by Hudson Adams, plays against the script's notions of naivete. Bentley gives Elma an appealing innocence, as when she exclaims to the bored bus riders, "Let's have a floor show!" But the actress displays no shock to the occasionally frank discussions, indicating that Elma, though inexperienced, is no babe in the woods.

For all his bluster and aggression Bo proves the play's biggest naif, and his efforts to get in touch with his sensitive side give the second act its most amusing moments. When Virgil tells Bo to try a little tenderness with Cherie, Hester is derisively obstinate and as hilariously opposite from "tender" as one can imagine. Yet at the end, when Bo turns on his shy, boyish charms, everyone in the audience goes "Awww ..."

Bell, Weinstein and most of the rest of the ensemble give their characters a plain, unaffected naturalism and avoid playing their parts as clowns or middle-American archetypes. The odd man out, in more ways than one, is Countryman's Dr. Lyman, who's high-falutin' ways quickly set him apart. Lyman's quoting of verse and courtly manners are clearly an act, a kind of defense mechanism for an alienated person, yet Countryman seems more like an actor putting on a show than a character for whom the show has become second nature.

Soul-stice Repertory's Bus Stop builds to no major revelations, but the two-hour play proves a genial and bittersweet slice of life. Any re-examination of neglected American playwrights is welcome, even if Bus Stop isn't quite a transporting experience.

Bus Stop plays in repertory through March 16 at 7 Stages Back Stage Theater, 1105 Euclid Ave., Wed.-Sun. at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees Sat.-Sun., beginning Feb. 24. $16-$18. 404-591-3036. www.soulstice.org.??

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