A group of passengers on a cross-country bus are stranded overnight for several hours in a small-town diner 30 miles west of Kansas City. Inge probably hadn't envisioned what a turning point 1955 would be for towns like the one in this play. Construction of the Interstate Highway system began in 1956, eventually turning way stations like this unnamed burg into ghost towns. But in 1955, the small town's situation on the route west gave it a steady stream of visitors, including the bus driver whose frequent but brief visits give Grace some respite from work and companionship she lacks from her absent husband. Grace, her teenage employee Elma, and the local sheriff all figure in life-altering connections with four passengers from the bus that would seem improbable these days. Any such delay in public transit would more likely occur in a big airport with hundreds or thousands of stranded passengers, where the food servers would work in a food court and leave at the end of their shift.
Raven's ace designer, Ray Toler, has created a knockout of a set for the diner, complete with period posters and advertising signs, and a blustery winter storm outside. It pulls us immediately into the time and place of the play. Equally authentic are Kristen Williams as the weary but vital Grace and Sophia Menendian as the waitress Elma. The relaxed, congenial pace of director JoAnn Montemurro gives us time to get to know the characters, who include the randy bus driver Carl (Dean LaPrairie); local sheriff Will, played with a not unlikeable macho bluster by Antoine Pierre Whitfield; Dr. Lyman (Jon Steinhagen), a former college professor and apparent pedophile who takes an unseemly interest in Elma; a Kansas City chanteuse named Cheri (Jen Short), who is being abducted by 21-year-old Montana cowboy Bo (Michael Stegall) who believes she's agreed to marry him; and Bo's foreman Virgil (Mark Pracht).
Short draws a delicate picture of Cherie as young (19 years old) but sexually experienced and just barely on the road toward jaded. Stegall's Bo's is initially unlikeable and boorish, until Inge and Stegall convince us he's basically a kid without social skills who treats others like the cattle he's so adept at roping. (In fact, there's a very funny bit in which Virgil subdues Bo in a fight by grabbing at the ankles and holding him upside-down, as if being roped.) Stegall, who has a perfect look for a 21-year-old cowboy, seems to be working too hard in the early scenes, but he's genuinely touching later on, when Bo feels defeated, and ultimately makes the case for Bo as a decent guy. Steinhagen's pretentious and conniving character has a similar awakening, which the actor handles quite adeptly. Mark Pracht is the strong, silent foreman who not only manages Bo's ranch but has raised Bo since the death of his parents. Mostly silent early in the play, except for a few monosyllables, Virgil becomes a surprisingly important character as the story plays out. Pracht reveals Virgil's depth gradually and carefully. The affection for the characters shown by Montemurro and company gently and gradually wins us over to them, and reassures us that even if people moved a bit slower 56 years ago, good relationships and meaningful connections weren't so easy to come by back then, either.
Bus Stop will play at the Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street, Chicago, through December 11, 2011. Ticket information available at www.raventheatre.com or 773-338-2177.