Bus Stop

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

Drop by the Bus Stop

Preview of Bus Stop, New Haven Theater Company

In the backroom of the English Building Markets, there’s a new diner. Or rather, an old diner. Dating from 1955, to be exact. It’s the set—still under construction—for New Haven Theater Company’s upcoming production of William Inge’s classic play of Americana, Bus Stop, and, boy, does it look authentic. Complete with the spinning stools you might remember from your favorite drugstore soda counter (if you remember those at all), a Beechnut Coffee tin, glass bottles of milk, a Frigidaire, and a radio that looks like it was around to broadcast on VE Day, Grace’s diner, where Bus Stop takes place during a freak blizzard in Kansas in March, has ambiance aplenty.

Director George Kulp expressed his deep gratitude to the Long Wharf Theatre, which generously opened its scenery and costume warehouses for the NHTC’s use. Which makes the show a dream come true for Kulp, who played headstrong cowboy Bo Decker in an exam play staged when he was still a theater student back in 1982. “The part was good to me and got me some attention,” Kulp said, and recently, when the process of picking plays for the NHTC season was taking longer than usual, “the play crossed my mind again.” The first thing Kulp realized was that he has the perfect assortment of actors for the play. Kulp asked his fellow NHTCers to read the play and casting fell into place immediately.

First of all, the play brings back Megan Chenot to the NHTC stage—last seen as the Stage Manager in their production of Our Town two years ago—who is taking time off from her busy performance schedule with her band Mission O. She plays Cherie, a small-time show-girl from the Ozarks and the female love interest of Bo, a cowboy trying to get her to marry him and move to Montana, played here by Trevor Williams who has the kind of youthful energy to pass for early twenties. The youngest part in the production—impressionable teen waitress Elma—goes to Sara Courtmanche, in her NHTC debut.

Other roles are filled by some of the familiar regulars in the NHTC family: Megan’s husband, Peter, a welcome addition to any NHTC show, whether as star or support, plays no-nonsense Sheriff Will Masters; J. Kevin Smith, who has had his share of plum roles with NHTC, as for instance in Glengarry Glen Ross and The Seafarer, plays Dr. Lyman, a pontificating ex-prof, who delights a bit too much in a nip from the bottle, among other vices; Erich Greene, often in the role of comic support, plays Carl, the Bus Driver, who has designs on Grace, the owner of the establishment, played forthright and down-homey by Kulp’s wife Susan (the Kulps played the Webbs in Our Town); John Watson gets the role of Bo’s crusty sidekick and father figure, Virgil.

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

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

“The play is better than I remembered,” Kulp said, and admitted that when he played Bo, “I was only focused on my role and really didn’t see how well the parts fit together. There are a lot of possibilities for us to explore, and a lot of discoveries to make about these characters. And we’re finding the humor.”

Bus Stop, set in a distinct place—a stretch of Kansas on the bus route to Kansas City—and period, is “a really good choice” for the Company, Kulp said. Indeed, NHTC has shown an affinity with classic American theater in its productions of Our Town and Waiting for Lefty. The pacing of naturalist drama suits the NHTC ensemble approach, with everyone contributing to the overall effect. The challenge here is that most of the cast is on stage at the same time, with different configurations taking up the main action. It requires a bit more orchestration than something like Almost, Maine, which the NHTC staged at English Markets in 2013, where the action was parceled out in discrete scenes. Kulp said he finds the challenge exciting, while fans of NHTC who have enjoyed some of their larger cast productions should be pleased by the overlapping interactions.

While Inge might not be a playwright on the tip of everyone’s tongue, there was a revival of his play Picnic on Broadway in 2013, and Kulp feels Bus Stop is just as good, if not better. “Both hail from a more innocent time we can be nostalgic about, but Inge is good at exposing the different layers of his characters.” And, as Smith says, his role, Dr. Lyman, excised from the Hollywood film version of the play (in which Marilyn Monroe played Cherie), lets us hear more of the kind of jaundiced views closer to Inge himself who didn’t set out to write venerable classics.

And what about a blizzard in March? Kulp said the special effects will be convincing, but let’s hope the play’s not prophetic in that regard.

The New Haven Theater Company’s production of Bus Stop opens Thursday, March 3rd and plays March 4th, 5th, 10th, 11th, 12th at 839 Chapel Street.