Not in Kansas Anymore: Bus Stop at Center Stage

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Not in Kansas Anymore: Bus Stop at Center Stage

Posted on on November 30, 2012

Here in Baltimore, it seems to be Bus Stop season. It’s been less than a month since I reviewed the Spotlighters’ community theater production of the William Inge 1955 classic; now it’s Center Stage’s turn. And of course Center Stage (or is it Centerstage these days?) gives it a full-dress professional staging. The difference is surprisingly great.

It is easy to be so impressed by the credentials and the skills that modern community theaters bring to bear, particularly in this vibrant theater town (of which more below), that one forgets how much more firepower a truly professional outfit can train on a show. Without showing an ounce of disrespect to Spotlighters, this production is so much more impressive in every way, from acting to sets to direction, that it’s almost like watching a different play.

I said, speaking of the earlier production, that Inge had built certain problems into the fabric of the play, that the three couples that come into a bus-stop diner on the Kansas steppes or form there require a pretty heavy suspension of disbelief, and that it’s hard to reconstruct the attitude we’re apparently supposed to have about them. And indeed the program notes by this production’s director, David Schweizer, confront that problem head-on. He writes:

“Doesn’t Bus Stop feature a deviant alcoholic, a physically abusive cowboy who kidnaps a young woman to drag her across state lines, a lonely and sex-starved café owner, a brooding sheriff with a shady past, and many others…?”

Despite that, he maintains, this play is intended to be and succeeds as theatrical “comfort food.” I don’t necessarily concur with that conclusion, but I do have to say that he has employed the unique resources of a professional company to sand down some of the rough edges in the script, in a way smaller companies couldn’t do. Using those resources, he has sneakily transformed a mid-century work of American realism into something fantastical like Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It, and thereby has solved a lot of problems.

It starts with stage snow, lots and lots of it, which never lets up through the entire show. At the beginning , before and while James Noone’s impressive set is wheeled in, piece by piece, the snow falls inside the diner area, to be relegated to the scrim at the back of the stage only once the diner is assembled.  And even then a generous expanse of actively snowy sky remains on view. We are not truly in Kansas anymore: we have entered a snow-world as separated and set apart from our own as are the woods outside Athens or the Forest of Arden in the two Shakespeare comedies just mentioned. In this realm, magical and fantastic things can occur, and ids can be released without permanent danger. We are almost required not to take things too literally. And that fantastic note continues throughout what follows.

Consider the “physically abusive cowboy,” Bo (Jack Fellows), and Cherie (Susannah Hoffman), the young chanteuse he has more or less kidnapped to take back to his Montana ranch. Taken literally, his behavior is so assaultive, sexist, and egotistical, that even with his reformation before the end, it would offend us for Cherie to be attracted to him enough to remark, despite herself, that she has a feeling she’s going to end up in Montana. In this production, however, Cherie is Marilyn Monroe, almost literally. Monroe played Cherie in the movie, and Hoffman is made up to look like her. And when the characters stage a cabaret in Scene 3, she puts on a Monroe dress – not a showgirl dress such as Monroe herself wore in the movie, but a shimmery “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” dress. Cherie/Monroe are performing: performing resistance to Bo’s impetuosity, performing yielding to his masculinity, performing Monroe-and-DiMaggio. By extension, then, Bo is performing, too. His never-believable naivete about women is not meant to be believed any more than Frederic’s in The Pirates of Penzance; it becomes simply a ritual of courtship, a display of peacock tailfeathers. And if you don’t have to believe it in, you don’t have to be offended by it.

Closely following the Bo-Cherie romance in challenge to the sensibilities and the credibility is the momentary pursuit of the 16 year-old waitress, Elma (Kayla Ferguson) by Dr. Lyman (Patrick Husted), a raffish old reprobate with a fondness for Shakespeare sonnets, drink, ex-wives, and inappropriately young girls. And I suspect Inge just put the ex-wives in to blur the picture slightly, so that we were not looking at an unmitigated ephebophile like Humbert Humbert. But much more than Humbert with Lolita, Dr. Lyman seems to seek a genuine rapport with Elma; if, as it appears, he is engaging in grooming behavior by making what amounts to a date with her in Topeka, it is grooming he falls for himself to a great extent. He seems genuinely to harmonize with her own appreciation of Shakespeare. Are we then supposed to think that in some crazy way this “marriage of true minds” could come to pass?  Clearly not, but a choice by the director makes this apparent in a charming way. This couple is to do the Balcony Scene from Romeo and Juliet as their contribution to the cabaret (pictured above). Dr. Lyman may be far too drunk and far too old to do the scene justice, but he is delivering the words correctly. In this production, unlike the one I had just seen, Dr. Lyman knows how to declaim Shakespeare’s lines. But Director Schweizer has Elma, standing on the lunch counter, go the other direction.  She recites her speech tonelessly, far too fast, and obviously wrongly, thus destroying any semblance of a mood. Dr. Lyman can hardly fail to be aware after this that Elma is not a plausible soulmate. This allows Dr. Lyman to disengage with a dignity he would not otherwise be able to muster.

And to revert to both the snow and the Shakespearean echoes one more time, there’s the coda to the play, where Virgil, Bo’s mentor (Larry Tobias), the odd man out like Antonio at the end of Merchant of Venice after all the couples depart rejoicing (in this case to get back on the bus or go upstairs and lie down), is ejected from the café. This necessary but casual casting aside of a man who has been like a parent is rendered all the more poignant by the way the café set is disassembled before our eyes as he is dismissed, and we are back at the end, with Virgil, in the solitary cold with the snow still falling. It’s like leaving the Athens woods or the Forest of Arden.

In sum: cast great, direction great, technically great, Inge saved from himself.

Just one thing. I recall sitting with Center Stage’s new artistic director, Kwame Kwei-Armah at a getting-to-know-you lunch with local theater critics, and hearing him talk the talk about Center Stage becoming more a part of the local theater scene. I’ve been aware of some initiatives to make good on that pledge, and that the centerpiece of the previous production was local actor Bruce Nelson. But it was really upsetting to read the biographies of the actors and see that seven of eight of them had never appeared at Center Stage before. And where had they been? New World Stages, Signature Theater (and not the one in Arlington), Playwrights Horizons, Roundabout Theatre. What regional theaters? Well, none from this neck of the woods that I could discern. Training? Oh, Tisch School, University of Connecticut, Harvard. What we have here, in other words, is a fine off-Broadway show. The finest. But it is not local theater. It is simply an evening of off-Broadway dumped into a local venue.

Baltimore and Washington have some first-class theatrical training grounds. We have a great and vibrant local theater scene, one of which Center Stage was once a part, before Kwei-Armah’s predecessor Irene Lewis destroyed the repertory concept for the company, and handed the operation over to casts-du-jour from New York. Count me among those still waiting for Center Stage to return to its roots, and begin living up again – and consistently so — to its title of the State Theater of Maryland, not New York.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo

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