Student actors shine in Bus Stop
In the middle of a raging winter storm, two cowboys, a pedophilic professor, and a saucy showgirl get off a stranded bus, forced to stay the night in a small Kansas diner.
Thus begins the School of Drama’s production of Bus Stop, a play written in 1955 that tells the story of a few eccentric people in an enclosed space who cross paths and are ultimately forced to evaluate their own identities in the process. Bus Stop, which opened last Thursday, is a rich adaptation of a thoughtful play, brought to life by the acting of skilled drama students.
The set for the production is eerie. The ghostly skeleton of a bus-like structure dominates the stage; whole chunks of the shell of the bus have apparently cracked off, leaving only the bus’ metal ribcage visible in places. The unsettling sight of the ghost-bus, surrounded by tufts of withered brown reeds and covered with a fine layer of snow, creates a chilling and mysterious mood. As the audience’s first exposure to the play, the set captures viewers’ attention as they wait for the actors to appear onstage.
As the characters stumble off the bus and into the diner, it becomes clear that each embodies a specific and familiar stereotype: The naïve high school girl, the laconic sheriff, and the egotistical professor, to name a few. But over the course of the play, many of these stereotypes are stripped away as they prove to be no more than superficial labels.
Only skilled actors could have successfully portrayed the depth of these characters; eight talented drama students rose to the challenge. Senior acting major Annie Heise stands out in her sophisticated performance of Cherie, an impatient blonde-wigged showgirl who demands protection from the infatuated but violent cowboy who coerced her onto the bus.
Although the Cherie we first meet is indignant and cynical, Heise’s performance allows the audience to watch this steely character slowly thaw and melt. Over the course of the play, Cherie sheds her hardened exterior and reveals a sensitive and hopelessly romantic girl underneath.
Senior acting major Adrian Blake Enscoe depicts a similar progression in his character Bo Decker, Cherie’s mean and rough abductor. Despite Bo’s initially violent treatment of Cherie, the audience soon learns that underneath this exterior lies a socially clueless and love-struck boy — a much more pitiable character than the angry cowboy who first saunters onstage. Enscoe shows his versatility as an actor in his ability to portray the rude, aggressive cowboy as well as the more innocent side of his character.
Heise and Enscoe’s performances are not alone in their excellent portrayals of complex characters. Each of the characters adds personality to the play, making the group of strangers in the diner eclectic and dynamic.
Romance and dysfunctional chemistry erupt between a few of the characters: Jessie Ryan, a master’s student in musical theater, plays Elma Duckworth, a cheerful but naïve girl who catches the eye of the pretentious Dr. Lyman (played by senior acting major Alex Rice), a proud intellectual and pedophile who is trying to escape the state. Meanwhile, the sarcastic and sultry diner owner, Grace (played by senior acting major Lexi Soha), has a passionate fling with the bus driver, Carl (played by junior acting major Marquis Wood).
Other, less spirited characters serve to keep the peace and bring their more passionate companions back down to reason. The gruff and terse sheriff, Will Masters (played by senior acting major Patrick de Ledebur) strives to maintain order when unrest breaks out. Likewise, Virgil Blessing (played by senior acting major Michael Cusimano), Bo’s more level-headed and romantically savvy friend, coaxes Bo out of his aggressive exterior and serenades the others with his sweet harmonica playing.
Together, the characters create a vibrant and somewhat dysfunctional dynamic that keeps the audience amused and interested, despite the relative lack of plot or change in setting. In such a character-driven play, a minimal plot is to be expected; but the few plot developments that exist in Bus Stop tend to miss the mark. Toward the end of the play, when the weather clears and the play must resolve itself before the characters go their separate ways, a series of events happens all at once. Some resolutions are unrealistically quick, while other moments drag on. The play’s original playwright, William Inge, certainly knew how to craft rich and compelling characters, but this confusing and strangely paced resolution is a somewhat disappointing end to an otherwise excellent play.
With such a minimal play in terms of plot, the production’s success depends largely on the characters and the skill of the actors who play them. In this respect, the School of Drama’s performance of Bus Stop is very successful.