If you enter Champaign’s Sodo Theater through the Walnut Street entrance, the unexpected sight of a 1950s-style eatery will greet you as you pass through the glass doors.
Welcome to Grace’s Diner, about 30 miles west of Kansas City on the road to Topeka.
Regular patrons of Twin City Theatre Company may be disoriented at first, expecting to be ushered into its small performance space with a postage-stamp stage where several recent productions have been done.
Indeed, if you know William Inge’s “Bus Stop” at all, you may have wondered how an eight-character play set in a roadside diner could be staged in such a cramped venue.
Director John Tilford and producer Diane Pritchard have solved most of the space problems by rethinking the sprawling former retail space downtown. A refreshment bar has been repurposed as the diner’s counter seats, which, due to its height obscures a couple of key moments, forces others to be played directly to the audience, and somehow causes at least one odd choice when a character is given the bum’s rush out the front door during a fight.
Inge’s 1955 play is set against a backdrop of winter weather similar to ours of the past week. A bus making its way across the Kansas plains is forced to stay overnight at the diner, which doubles as a stop along the line, when snow to the west has closed the highway. Although the play opened to acclaim on Broadway 65 years ago next month, the human stories in it may make you think that, in love and in life, nothing ever really changes.
The story begins quietly with Grace (Carrie Brocksmith) and her teenage sidekick Elma (Jordyn Warhover) preparing for the arrival of the late bus from Kansas City. Wise-cracking Grace looks forward to seeing Carl (Tony Curtis), the bus driver, on whom she has a bit of a crush. Grace and Elma are joined by the sheriff, Will (David Heckman), who arrives to help manage the expected challenges that come with closed roads and inoperable phone lines.
When the bus arrives, a motley assortment of four passengers spill out of the vehicle and into the diner. First, and most important to the playwright, is Cherie (Gabrielle Smith), a blonde “chanteuse” from the Ozarks, who is in a desperate situation (and likely has been from birth). Not far behind is the drunken, lecherous professor Dr. Lyman (Phil Weber) who brightens considerably on seeing the teenage Elma and begins to quote Hamlet speaking to Ophelia.
Carl lets the sheriff know he has a potential problem with a cowboy who is sleeping on the bus and who has bothered Cherie since they left Kansas City. The driver also whispers something about the professor, but we won’t know what until much later. At one point, Carl, who flirts incessantly with Grace, complains that all he ever gets are “drunks and hoodlums” on his bus.
As the passengers and locals get acquainted, the door flies open and a loudmouthed, angry cowboy, Bo (Todd Knabusch), stomps into the diner demanding to know why he has been left in the bus. (He was sleeping.)
Accompanied by his bosom pal, Virgil (Monty Joyce), Bo is a cocksure rodeo champion who believes he is going to marry Cherie—must marry her—because they have been “familiar” with one another. Cherie sees things differently, complains to the sheriff that she has been abducted and the battle is on.
For those who have even passing familiarity with contemporary issues in this time of #MeToo, the thematic of female objectification that runs through “Bus Stop” may give pause.
Is Bo a bully or just a dumb hick right off the ranch? It is an important question because the audience will not side with a bully, and you need their sympathy to make the play work in today’s culture.
Bo is an arrested adolescent and his insistent ardor should not seem threatening. In the dress rehearsal seen by the News-Gazette, the character’s excitation and amorous intent was so angry that it appeared as if Cherie might be in real danger—even if they work things out by the end of the play.
With director Tilford’s steady hand at the helm, the actors will surely adjust the emotional heat at the core of Inge’s stormy play.