Materializing on the lovely stage at Actors Summit this month is Bus Stop by William Inge, a play about good people who have lost their way in more ways than one. A winter storm forces their bus to stop for a few hours at a diner along the route, leading to one of those moments of fate, when life turns on a dime.
Akron's delightful Actors Summit is in an old Masonic Temple — the 1918 Greystone Hall. For Clevelanders, that might seem like a long way to travel for an evening of theater. But truly, it's not much farther away than Blossom Music Center. And you'll be glad you went.
When you get there and gaze upon the arched beamed ceilings and carved oak walls, you'll be whisked back in time. The design is medieval; the stage, grand; and the classic Shakespearean thrust is reminiscent of London's Blackfriars , the indoor digs of Shakespeare's company 400 years ago.
As the play gets under way, Inge's dialogue smoothly moves us deeply into the secret dreams and broken hopes of the travelers. Grace and Elma are setting up for a normal evening, when a terrified young woman runs tearfully into the diner looking for place to hide. She is Cherie, a two-bit lounge singer who has been abducted by a dope of a farm hand named Bo, who thinks he's in love.
Dr. Lyman hurries in next — a bitter old man, beaten down by life's disappointments, and creepily seeking salvation in young girls. Within moments, he fastens onto 17-year-old Elma and begins to ply her with classical flirtations to arrange a rendezvous.
Virgil and Bo come in last. Bo prowls the diner looking for Cherie. Grace manages a rendezvous with the bus driver Carl. The sheriff, Will Masters, watches over everyone. And so the human comedy begins: old men chasing young women, young men chasing impossible love affairs, young girls chasing dreams, older women looking for an evening's solace from a lonely life. It's all there while the storm rages.
Llewie Nunez as Cherie is a revelation; she carries herself like a woman used to being pawed by men. She's tough on the outside, but tender on the inside. But she makes it clear she's street-wise — not the whispery child that Marilyn Monroe made famous. Nunez is constantly surprising, bringing a down-to-earth quality to Cherie that is funny and sassy and proud.
Pursuing her, Dean Coutris, as Bo, is perfect for the role. He easily perches on the cusp between boyhood and manhood, with a gigantic, handsome smile and an unabashed ego that seems to pour out of every nook and cranny of his Western attire. He's tall, slender and strong. He looks like he's been handling cows all his life as he blunders through the diner like a bull in a china shop, knocking everyone and everything over as he ineptly tries to woo Cherie by whirling her around his body like he's roping a calf.
His sidekick and best friend is Virgil Blessing, played with uncanny simplicity and wisdom by Bill Hoffman. He's as solid as a rock, with a quiet dignity about him that is laced with sadness. He knows that if Bo succeeds in wooing Cherie, he will have to leave and move on in his own life. He's his own man, but nonetheless there is a deep sadness to him that makes us wonder about the life he has led. It's a beautiful, wise performance.
Doug Hendel as Dr. Gerald Lyman has created a sympathetic portrayal of a once charming, brilliant professor, who has pissed his life away in bad marriages, love affairs, and alcohol. His flirtation with Rebecca Ribley's trusting and fascinated Elma Duckworth is pathetic and a bit frightening. He incongruously plays Romeo to her lovely Juliet only to pass out in a drunken stupor. But it is beautifully performed. To see youthful promise beneath blasted dissipation is a complex creative accomplishment.
Carl and Grace, played respectively by Jim Fippin and Elizabeth Lawson, have a very funny "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" silent communication, which gives them leave to disappear for an hour so she can give Carl a tour of her upstairs apartment.
As Sheriff Will Masters, Alex Nine does a terrific turn, developing a world-weary, but on-the-job lawman with a heart of gold. He will stop a fight, arrest poor Bo, but then pat him on the back and charmingly cough up a, "No hard feelings?"
Bus Stop is a lovely production, expertly directed and acted by a fine ensemble. It is classic American theater.