note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi
Elma Duckworth … Laura Heisler
Grace Hoyland … Elizabeth Marvel
Will Masters … Daniel Oreskes
Cherie … Elizabeth Banks
Dr. Gerald Lyman … Bill Camp
Carl … John Douglas Thompson
Bo Decker … Logan Marshall-Green
Virgil … Leon Addison Brown
The Stanton Family Band:
Wilbur Owney … David Abeles
Owner Wilbur … Dave Chura
Travis Travis … Ross Travis
Maybelle … Erica Lipez
There are few sadder men in the history of the American theatre than William Inge (1913-73). He was Broadway’s hottest playwright in the 1950s, turning our four hits in a row (COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA; PICNIC; BUS STOP; THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS) from which four equally successful films were made. He won a Pulitzer Prize for PICNIC and an Academy Award for his screenplay SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS. He was alcoholic, closeted, repressed and dysfunctional. Success brought little comfort; love seemed always beyond his grasp --- had it ever smiled upon him, his Midwestern background would have set him up as its judge and executioner. He lived a solitary, perhaps celibate, life with his writing as his identity and his anchor. When he tried to change with the times and his plays became franker, more sensational, his critics and audiences abandoned him. Finally, as the lyric goes, he took his life as dreamers often do, inside his own garage with the car windows down and the engine running. He was sixty years old and died knowing that he had become America’s Forgotten Playwright.
Mr. Inge’s place in the pantheon is slightly lower than Tennessee Williams, his friend and inspiration, and he was a forerunner, of sorts: his biographer Ralph F. Voss writes, “William Inge showed that rural midwesterners could be as vulnerable to life’s upsets as the most committed of city dwellers. … That such an environment is uniformly wholesome and unerringly beneficent was a myth that had been well exposed by such Inge predecessors as Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and Edgar Lee Masters … William Inge, however, was the first American writer to expose that myth in the dramatic genre.” Mr. Inge had his finger-pointers who focused on his sex-starved women, weak-willed men and muscular studs and questioned his outlook on love and marriage; time and distance have since allowed the plays of this gentle, tormented man to be seen once again on their own terms. SHEBA, PICNIC, BUS STOP and STAIRS may not be dramatically innovative but they remain solid, well-constructed entertainments, affectionately balanced between nostalgia and regret, and their spare Midwestern dialogue is artless and sincere --- budding playwrights wishing to create believable-sounding dialogue would do well to study Mr. Inge’s plays and, even better, to view them in production. How does one direct and act out a William Inge play? Mr. Inge provides a key to his work in his introduction to a Time-Life book entitled “The Plain States”, quoted at length by Mr. Voss:
“[The introduction] not only introduces the plains region to a reader but also serves as a kind of testament to Inge’s own beliefs about the land and the people. His lengthy opening sentence sets his tone and his philosophy … The Plains States and their people…show a “correlation of land and character,…plain and level and unadorned.” The open horizon seems to spawn an openness and an honesty in the people, who, being people, can be just as good or as bad as people anywhere, but they are somehow more forthright than people elsewhere, more willing to be level as the land in their dealings. This openness, Inge suggests, is a result of living under a great wide sky which can bring, at different times, such extremes of weather that people seem barely significant:
[Mr. Inge:] “A person lives in this mid-country with an inherent consciousness of the sky….And human life on the prairie is more dependent upon and influenced by the sky and its constant maneuverings than in other regions….Life and prosperity depend upon that sky, which can destroy a season’s crops in a few hours, by hail or blizzards or tornadoes or a relentlessly burning sun that can desiccate the land like an old Testament curse.””
PICNIC may have won the Pulitzer Prize but BUS STOP is Mr. Inge’s most popular play and his one out-and-out comedy (it had a profitable Broadway run but won no major prizes --- it was up against Mr. Williams’ CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, that season). Mr. Inge had previously written a brief slice of life entitled PEOPLE IN THE WIND that takes place in a small-town restaurant just outside of Kansas and peopled with its proprietress, a young waitress, a bus driver and his passengers which include a chanteuse being pursued by a love-struck cowpoke, a poetry-spouting drunk and two old maids (a charming little piece, this). For the full-length BUS STOP, Mr. Inge brought the chanteuse (Cherie) and her cowpoke (Bo) into the foreground: she has been abducted by him after a one-night romance; he wants to marry her and bring her back to his ranch in Montana but she has other plans. Bo has been given a fatherly sidekick (Virgil), a sheriff (Will) wanders in and out to keep the peace, the drunk (Dr. Lyman) not-so-innocently flirts with the naïve waitress (Elma) while the proprietress (Grace) slips upstairs with the bus driver (Carl). (The old maids have been discarded.) Instead of being wind-swept as before, the restaurant is snowed in and the characters’ interact while waiting for clear skies. BUS STOP is Mr. Inge’s healthiest, happiest treatise on the many faces of love: Cherie and Bo spar and smooch as a modern-day Kate and Petruchio, Elma develops a crush on the charming, lecherous Dr. Lyman, Grace and Carl steal love on the sly and Virgil’s affectionate devotion to Bo leaves him out in the cold at play’s end. (The well-known film adaptation starring Marilyn Monroe as Cherie has a lengthy, added on Prologue with the play’s restaurant and characters (minus Dr. Lyman) coming on board much, much later.)
The Williamstown Theatre Festival is offering a sadly limited run of BUS STOP which I hope will be sold out as compensation for it is good and golden and true. Will Frears has set the play in period --- or has he? (The production, along with Mr. Inge’s dialogue, proves timeless; only the telephone at the counter and the Life magazines in the corner rack give away the game.) Mr. Frears has brought out the hearts on his actors’ sleeves, capturing the above-described openness and honesty without caricature so that Elizabeth Banks’ Cherie has an innate dignity for all her cracker-talk and Logan Marshall-Green’s Bo is made loveable through an excess of youth rather than pigheadedness. Among the others, Bill Camp’s rich theatricality makes him an effortless Dr. Lyman, capturing both the man’s dissipation and the heights from which he has fallen, and Elizabeth Marvel is a marvelous down-home Grace, blunt-tongued, warm-hearted and the evening’s cornerstone. Takeshi Kata’s set design is lovingly detailed down to its patterned tin roof and lowering skies and costume designer Jenny Mannis has seen to it that Dr. Lyman’s suit looks properly slept-in. The production is performed without intermission; in between minimal changes, a country quartet named The Stanton Family Band plays up in the galleries to pleasantly distract you.
If only Mr. Frears and his cast could have performed PEOPLE IN THE WIND as a curtain raiser with the same set! What a wonderful opportunity to have shown BUS STOP as Before and After and to spark a renewed interest in America’s Forgotten Playwright.