Regional Reviews: St. Louis
First though, in the interest of full disclosure, I should also tell you about my connection to the director of this new production, Sam Hack: we (and his wife Marilyn) studied under the same remarkable college drama department chairman in St. Louis, though not at the same time. And perhaps predictably, his sense of stage style and precision in orchestrating this play's taught interlocking parts matches mine, and rings true to my own roots, at least. That favorite college professor went on to chair the theater department at the much larger University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I'm sure he'd be proud of this new staging.
You may already know that playwright William Inge also knew Tennessee Williams in the latter's own college days in St. Louis where Inge taught, at another local university, halfway across town from ours. Both Inge and Williams went on to become Broadway playwrights and masters of poetic desolation in everyday American life, Inge's plays hewing toward his own roots in Kansas, while Williams tended toward the South.
So let's get on board (at last) for this newest Bus Stop. Seeing it at the Clayton Community Theatre, I suddenly realize why you need a fascinating, troubled Marilyn Monroe (from the 1956 movie), or in this case the deeply affecting local actress Britteny Henry, who's fascinating too, though perhaps more sustainably so, as Cherie. That's the "nightclub singer" from Kansas City, and Ms. Henry captures all the plainspoken sexuality of the role, combined with a natural, countrified bemusement, to balance things out and win us over, as she lingers over a life-changing decision. She also gets a big, revealing musical number in a sprawling variety show, while a gaggle of travelers are trapped in a snowed-in diner not too far from Topeka, Kansas.
While Picnic may be more purely "Ingean," in terms of its own particular atmosphere, Bus Stop is probably the better play: it has more indelible theatrical elements, more conflicts and interrelationships, more fine speechifying, and a more visceral, immediate sense of danger. And it has a second act that puts all other second acts to shame, sweeping everything up in a Kansas tornado of frustration and desire. Half the characters in Bus Stop have lost someone, or everyone, or everything, and the other half can't quite figure out what to do about it. Picnic has more wistful, on-stage poetry, but Bus Stop forces Inge and his characters to their greatest heights.
Michael Bouchard is the handsome lunk-headed stranger here (there's one in Picnic too) and the always-splendid Erin Struckhoff is this story's no-nonsense small-town Kansas matron (in this case, running the diner where it all takes place). Like Hal in Picnic, Mr. Bouchard is appropriately twangy and loud but somehow still quite likable, as a brash young Montana rancher. Joe O'Connor is deliciously classical, and self-loathing as the alcoholic professor Dr. Lyman; and Lucy Sappington has perfect girlish confidence and naturalism as the teenage girl he slowly draws under his spell.
Picnic may be more abstract or Chekhovian, but Bus Stop has that great American sense of the highway running through it, confounded by a fierce storm, stranding a group of people who are passing through, or simply passed byor both at once. It's as if someone asked Mr. Inge to "write another Picnic," but instead he came right back with something more modern, divorced from small town life, where people could easily get lost in their own shadows, drifting along without any roots at all. Unexpectedly, all of them are caught together here, by forces greater than themselves, and coming under stark examination.
Through February 11, 2018, at the Washington University South Campus, 6501 Clayton Road (just east of Big Bend Blvd.). For more information visit www.placeseveryone.org