The Bus Stops here—at Ross Valley Players Barn Theater

All the while I watched from the eighth row, the thought kept running through my head, “I know these people,” like I’d already met each of these characters already, at one time or another.  Poor fool souls stumbling through life, trying to figure out what they have yet to learn, or make use of what they’ve already learned.  Overbearing, obnoxious, wheedling, naïve, blind to themselves and those around them.  Yep, I’ve already met Bo (Andrew Morris), Cherie (Laurie Peterson), Virgil (Aeron Macintyre), Elma (Ariana Mahallati), and all the rest of them, stranded by a blizzard in William Inge’s Bus Stop for the night.

They have been thrown together, dropped by a bus at this Midwestern little nowhere, this setting with the significance of the places we can be who we are, and call home.  They all belong here in this production by Ross Valley Players, even Cherie whose naturally thick Arkansas accent says she’s from somewhere else.  Not that far away.  Some of them already know each other, others are about to, and in watching them go on I got a little insight to things I thought I already knew, about how blind we can be to who we are, and to who is in front of us.

It starts out with a little seeming violence, but calmer heads prevail.  Two scenes in the first act were among the most touching I think I’ve seen in theatre. One, where the ever calm and mature Virgil actually talks some sense into the overbearing Bo; the uncouth cowboy actually calms down and grows up before our eyes.  Opposite them, a few minutes later, seated at the diner counter, the floozy chanteuse Cherie opens up to the teenage waitress Elma.  With these two conversations, the play takes a turn, and the characters assume depths we could not have seen before.

It’s a credit to the playwright (William Inge), and to the direction (Christian Haines), that these two pivotal scenes open up a whole realm of possibilities.  The ensuing character changes that under a less skilled hands might have seemed abrupt and contrived, seem instead wholly natural.  There are conflicts, well-staged fights, failed abductions and seductions, machinations, all in this little diner, all in this little world opening before our eyes.

Costume design (Michael A. Berg) likewise fits each of the characters perfectly, from the cowboys’ fleeces to the pastel blue waitress uniforms of the 50’s setting, to the shimmering gold lamé of Cherie’s performance sheath, brought out for the impromptu talent-show performances the stranded strangers contrive to pass the time.

We see ourselves up there with them, if we are alert.   We may think we know what we want, but never understand the reasons, or realize how to get it.  And the play ends on this melancholy note:  Some of us never really make a choice, and will never really attain what we need.  If you went to see the “uproarious comedy” touted by the promotional material, you might be disappointed.  What you see, instead, is something much deeper, and much more compelling, a tale of human loneliness and redemptive connection accented by some truly hilarious moments.

Weekends and Thursday nights through March 26, 2017

Box office:  Ross Valley Players

Review by David Hirzel