Raleigh Little Theatre's production of William Inge's 1955 play Bus Stop, directed by David Anthony Wright, is a remarkable bit of immersion, with three sets of seats surrounding a diner filled with tables, a counter, a fridge and more, placing theatergoers in the midst of the action. (At one point, a plate of ham and eggs gets cooked on what appears to be a working oven, and the smell lingers through intermission.) Occasionally, our presence in the space, designed by Thomas Mauney, gets tricky. When runaway bride Chérie (Katie Scofield) gets carried out of the diner by would-be fiancé Bo (Brian Hollingsworth), I was genuinely afraid I was going to take a foot to the face.
Inge's play, though, isn't as fresh as it was in the 1950s, a criticism that has also been leveled against the recent Broadway production of Picnic, another of his most famous works. Certainly, the implied sexual content of Bus Stop must have been a barnburner in those days, with plot points revolving around the trysting of diner owner Grace (Connie Di Grazia) and bus driver Carl (David Klionsky), along with teen waitress Elma (Alyssa Petrone) being wooed by an alcoholic, Humbert-like professor (Tim Wiest). Throw in the frustrated relationship between the macho-but-inexperienced Bo and the sultry-but-winsome Chérie, add a blizzard that shuts them all in the Kansas diner adjacent to the bus stop of the title, and you have the makings of a good old-fashioned sexy melodrama. Which is a good thing, and a bad thing: The play's dated elements mean that its moments of comedy play better than the drama, whether it's an impromptu talent show put on by the diners or Wiest's increasingly loose-limbed lecher stumbling over his words and his own two feet. The best dramatic work comes from Jonathan Lowry in the small role of Virgil; he plays a mean guitar and brings a certain world-weary sadness to his part. Bus Stop's themes aren't as compelling as the scenery, but it's still a sometimes-poignant portrait of a bygone era that wasn't necessarily so innocent.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Can we talk?"