Thursday, February 12, 2009

Another review of Bus Stop

ICCT - Bus Stop is a classic play that I have never been all that fond of. Many years ago, I saw a production in Missouri that was just terrible. I knew someone in the cast and while she was good, I left the theatre thinking Bus Stop was one of the most cliche-ridden, boring plays I had ever had the misfortune of witnessing. So I walked into the Iowa City Community Theatre with much trepidation.

ICCT restored my faith in this classic play. The cardboard characters I endured in Missouri production were transformed into fully realized people I cared about. The actors and director Luis Sierra deserve kudos for bringing to life a piece of Americana, one that takes us back to a simpler time while still providing timeless insight into the human condition.

The story is pretty straightforward. A bus carrying a singer with a questionable past, a brash cowboy who smitten with the singer, the cowboy's sidekick, and an overly dramatic college professor is forced to stop at a diner overnight while the roads are cleared from the effects of a terrible storm. At the diner is an experienced waitress and a naive waitress. The main plot revolves around Bo, the cowboy who has "kidnapped" Cherie, the singer, after a one night stand and is taking her back to his ranch in Montana to be his wife. The danger in portraying Bo is that he can easily become a one dimensional character that modern audience believes is a chauvinistic boor. Kehry Anson Lane imbues his Bo with all of the bravado we expect, but also offers us glimpses of insecurity which make it clear just how naive he really is. Lane is helped immensely in his portrayal of Bo by Jeremy Ping, who portrays Virgil, Bo's surrogate father and sidekick. Ping captures our attention the moment he steps on stage without saying a word. Often the hardest skill for an actor to learn is to react accurately to what other actors are doing. It's easy to overplay and just as deadly to underplay the reaction. Ping, who doesn't have a lot of lines in this show, is a master of reaction acting. His reactions and words to Bo allow us to see Bo as Virgil sees him, which is far more sympathetic than we might otherwise feel.

Rachel Korach Howell deserves special praise for her multi-layered portrayal of Cherie. It's easy to portray Cherie as not too bright, but instead Howell chooses to give us a Cherie who's been through the ringer and learned a thing or two. She bursts on to stage with an energy that wakes up the audience (which is needed as the play starts a little slow) and keeps us hanging onto every word.

Kathey Maxey, as Grace the experienced waitress, and Jeff Emrich, as the sheriff, ably handle their characters as well. Emrich, in particular, provides a unique take on the sheriff role. He doesn't come across as the tough leathery sheriff one often sees in this play, but rather has a quiet confidence that just as effectively makes it clear this man lives for law and order. If there is a false note in the play, it's Rip Russell's portrayal of Carl, the bus driver. Russell is an excellent actor. His performances in ICCT's productions of To Kill a Mockingbird and Shadow Box proved that. Unfortunately, in this small role, he overplays much of the humor and comes across as less real than the other characters. Fortunately, his onstage chemistry with Maxey saves the day, and what might have been a jarring performance is still enjoyable to watch.

I have enjoyed Chuck Dufano's work with City Circle, Dreamwell and ICCT over the years. It's always a treat watch Dufano unfold a complex character before our eyes. He certainly has hands full with Dr. Lyman. It isn't until the second act that his portrayal of Lyman really takes off. Dufano has a wonderful moment in the second act when Lyman realizes exactly who he is and he uses every acting tool to show us the character's personal defeat. From the slumped shoulders to the expression of dawning self loathing, Dufano does not disappoint. Crucial to his success is Jana K. Stedman, who portrays the innocent Emma Duckworth. Emma is one of the most difficult roles in this play because it requires the actress to be almost unbelievably naive, particularly to modern audiences. To Stedman's credit, she delivers each woefully naive line with sincerity, honesty and just the slightest hint of a greater understanding. She gives us little peeks into Emma's future when she is not so naive and so we accept her more easily. This is important for Dufano's successful portrayal of Professor Lyman. For his character to be fully realized, we have to like and accept Emma.

Overall, what I was struck with most was how well the cast worked together. If any piece of the puzzle does not fit, the picture will be incomplete. Each actor successfully fit their piece into the puzzle, which provided an evening of excellent theatre for Iowa City.

--Matthew Falduto

Matthew has a Bachelor's degree in English from the University of Iowa. He has directed, acted in, and produced theater in the Iowa City area for over ten years. He has worked with the Iowa City Community Theatre, City Circle and Dreamwell, of which he is a founder. Two of his plays have been produced in the Iowa City area. In another brief life, he also worked as a technical writer.

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