Stopping by the Diner on a Snowy Evening

Review of Bus Stop at New Haven Theater Company

William Inge’s Bus Stop, first staged in 1955, portrays a selection of American types with a “classic” glow—like cars with fins, girls in bobby-sox, and the films of James Dean, or Duke Wayne for that matter. You might say the tone of the play manages to navigate both worlds. Like Dean’s films, there’s a sense that something’s not quite right beneath the surface of an apparently everyday world, something that could become dangerous or at least darkly menacing, while, like most of Wayne’s films, it all comes out alright in the end—because people are people and basically decent.

In the New Haven Theater Company production, directed with appealing energy by George Kulp, the feel of the diner as a space and a presence is key. Thanks to materials NHTC borrowed from the Long Wharf Theatre and from the English Markets, the set has an authenticity that goes a long way to make us believe in Grace’s Diner, the familiar haunt of a few of the characters and, for a gaggle of bus passengers, the new surroundings in which they’re temporarily stranded while a blizzard closes the roads just west of Kansas City.

The diner’s owner, Grace Hoylard, played flinty but sympathetically by Susan Kulp, has a soft spot for two of the other regulars: her young, naïve but intelligent teen employee Elma Duckworth (Sara Courtemanche, in a confident debut), and Carl the bus driver (Erich Greene), a nonchalant man on the make. There’s also Sheriff Will Masters (Peter Chenot) who presides over the others with a level tone that Wayne himself would recognize, I reckon.

Then there are the passengers, most of whom are a bit flighty for the staid tones at Grace’s: Dr. Gerald Lyman (J. Kevin Smith), a seedy professor with a past and the blustering manner of someone used to soliloquizing; Cherie (Megan Chenot), a likable “chanteuse,” none too bright but having to learn to assert herself to withstand the self-involved importuning of Bo Decker (Trevor Williams), a prize-winning cowpoke who seems to think he’s a gift to womankind just by being alive. His sidekick, Virgil Blessing, is played by John Watson with a ruminative air that would do Walter Brennan proud.

The plot essentially serves two purposes: to help Bo and Dr. Lyman grow some awareness, and to make the women, Cherie and Elma, gain stature. The diner, as the arena where this happens, never stops being also a diner, which is to say a slice-of-life setting and a public space, and that means that we’re put in the place, almost, of eavesdroppers watching folks interact in public. Such is Inge’s very capable grasp of how theatrical real life can be, and how a public domain is useful to help a grandstanding cowboy see how he looks to others and snap out of his fantasy of himself, and to make a smooth-talking seducer of young girls consider his prey as a person in a community. Meanwhile, the women—who are not exactly what you’d call passive and easily led—have to see the limits of sympathy and excitement where male egos are concerned.

Finally, Inge also gives us a refreshingly non-anxious look at a grown-up man and woman (Carl and Grace) who agree to convenient liaisons without guilt-tripping about it. The pair are not likely to be anyone’s model couple, but Inge has the wherewithal to let them be themselves, without apology.

Kulp keeps his cast rattling along, playing things forthright without worrying too much about lurking nuances. Lyman never seems too creepy, and Bo never too vicious. Cherie and Elma both get grandstanding moments atop the diner’s counter, with Chenot rocking her chanteuse gown and Courtmanche’s high-school-style Juliet providing some welcome comedy, as does Watson’s many scowling reactions to his pardner’s incessant braggadocio.

New Haven Theater Company renders Bus Stop with a becoming purity, strengthened by Megan Chenot’s grasp of Cherie’s earnest manner, a mix of down-home charm and easy-going allure, and by Courtmanche’s dreamy young girl’s wonder about all the types it takes to make a world. With so much real feeling invested in this tale, this Bus Stop is an entertaining place to get stranded.


Bus Stop
By William Inge
Directed by George Kulp

Cast: Megan Keith Chenot, Peter Chenot, Sara Courtmanche, Erich Greene, Susan Kulp, J. Kevin Smith John Watson, Trevor Williams

Stage Manager: Margaret Mann; Set Design & Construction: George Kulp; Lighting: Peter Chenot; Board Ops: Deena Nicol-Blifford, Margaret Mann

New Haven Theater Company
March 3-5 & 9-12, 2016