BY SANDY STAGGS
A twister may have swept Dorothy Gale away in “The Wizard of Oz,” but it’s a freak snowstorm in Kansas that is the catalyst for the tempest of love in the Spartanburg Methodist College Players spring production of William Inge’s “Bus Stop.”
“Bus Stop” dishes out a tasty slice of Americana that delicately intertwines heartland romance with rugged comedy when impassable roads force a bus driver and his four passengers to hunker down for the night in a desolate diner that doubles as a bus stop in an unnamed town outside Kansas City in 1955.
A seasoned Grace Hoylard (a boisterous Cordasha Monroe) and her impressionable high schooler waitress Elma Duckworth (a splendid Jacquie Goodman) run the dinky dive and — with the local Sheriff Will Masters (an authoritative Jaaron Snyder) looking on — welcome the stranded patrons who slowly file in.
Chérie (the recently-crowned Miss SMC Sarah Grace Reed in a platinum-blonde wig and impeccable make-up) is the first passenger to arrive — and with her luggage. Famously played by bombshell Marilyn Monroe (after much-publicized acting classes) in the film version, Chérie is a 19-year-old self-described chanteuse from the Ozarks who claims to have been kidnapped by the cowboy who is still sleeping on the bus.
The bullheaded 21-year-old Bo Decker (a very amusing Jacob Noland who, in his Stetson, beckons a young unknown Brad Pitt circa “Thelma and Louise”) reveals that he and Chérie (he pronounces her name Cherry) have become “familiar” and that he is taking her to live on his ranch in Montana where he lives with his pseudo-guardian and ranch manager Virgil (Collin English).
And in a span of just a few hours, love (and attraction) blooms even with sub-freezing temperatures outside. Grace gets overheated with Carl the bus driver (Cody Rowe) and Elma is enamored with a much-older, divorced and erudite professor Charlie Lyman (Pierce Burch) who has a spotty record with women and a propensity for both Shakespeare and alcohol.
And Inge does not beat around the proverbial bush in this play in three acts (and two intermissions) and flat out uses the term “sex,” a rarity for the ‘50s when married couples still slept in separate beds on television.
There are some genuine snippets of greatness in this “Bus Stop.” Miss Reed may pay homage to Monroe with her appearance, but she boldly resists imitating her and makes this part all her own, displaying unbridled vulnerability and passion, and even gives us a little floor show with “That Old Black Magic.” Miss Goodman is perfectly cast as the intelligent wide-eyed teenager and Burch gives a marvelously nuanced performance in the play’s most peculiar character, and the most challenging role. The professor is downright despicable and Burch’s complex portrayal compels us to empathize with an otherwise jerk of a man.
Under the helm of Neill Hance, Adjunct Professor of Public Speaking and Director of SMC Theatre, the cast does a tremendous job with the tricky timing of the dialogue that travels across the various vignettes throughout the diner. The conversations are cursive and flow naturally and with nimble grace, which allows the audience to effortlessly follow the action intimately.
Also notable on this production is a keenly-executed sound scheme with whirling winds every time the door opens and several music cues by Matthew Davis (sound) and Rory Hayes (special effects). And Elexis Johnson’s costumes are delightful from the yellow diner smocks to Cherie’s modest peach dress and tasteful fuchsia burlesque attire.
There were some flubbed lines and an apparent “Oops” moment at Friday night’s performance but that I attribute more to a teetering sense of confidence in front of a live audience than lack of preparation. This unflappable troupe of freshmen and sophomores — SMC is a two-year college with a very limited theatre program — has much to offer and should just remain steadfast in their journey and, most of all, revel in the moment.
William C. Burns, Jr. is Technical Director and designed the spartan but effective set with the counter as the focal point. Vix Beardsley is Assistant Director/House Manager, David Edwards is Stage Manager, Matthew Davis is on lights and Amberly Clark, Sam Spencer and Sydney Gregory are on stage crew.
“Bus Stop” continues Saturday, April 2 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 3 at 2:30 p.m. at Gibbs Auditorium at Spartanburg Methodist College, 1000 Powell Mill Rd. in Spartanburg. Tickets are $5 at the door. For more information, call (864) 587-4000 or visit http://www.smcsc.edu.
Sandy Staggs, a Spartanburg native, is Drama Critic and Publisher of Carolina Curtain Call and has been a journalist and arts critic for 20 years with staff positions and/or articles in the San Francisco Examiner, Greenville News, Spartanburg Herald-Journal, San Francisco Bay Guardian, San Francisco Observer, Oakland Tribune, San Mateo County Times and more, as well as an essay in the Hub City Press book “Stars Fell on Spartanburg.”