By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 25, 2010; C03
They're keeping the coffee warm at Olney Theatre Center, where William Inge's "Bus Stop" is getting a glowing production courtesy of director Austin Pendleton.
You may recall "Bus Stop" as a boisterous romantic comedy about a young, loudmouthed cowboy bent on lassoing a chanteuse-y floozy (Marilyn Monroe in the 1956 film version), but the Hollywood treatment differs from the play. For one thing, the movie cut out the alcoholic, deeply lovelorn old professor, a character that was pretty clearly based on the closeted, suicidal Inge himself.
For another, the play is a true ensemble piece, and that's what Pendleton seizes on so marvelously at Olney. A blizzard is blowing -- "It's like all the elements have lost their reason," remarks the local sheriff as he slaps snow off his hat -- and thus a tidy cross section of humanity gets stranded together for a few hours in a Kansas diner/bus stop. Inge watches and listens as these people pour forth various melodies of love, and though romance sparks now and again, a deeper theme emerges amid the widespread longing: Baby, it's cold outside.
This is probably a duskier "Bus Stop" than Inge envisioned; he was emerging as an unlikely hitmaker as this play debuted in 1955, and thanks to the broadly drawn leads, the show has long been labeled a comedy. Pendleton's sober approach doesn't abandon all laughs, but the ones he allows are few and choice. Mainly he bends the script toward its subterranean melancholy, and thanks to some truly ginger playing by a splendidly balanced cast, the play doesn't snap under the weight.
The bluesy tone is set by Jane Summerhays (playing the diner's owner) and Judith Ingber (a young waitress). Summerhays dispenses her seasoned character's romantic advice with shrugging acceptance, and you can tell this woman is on very familiar terms with the notion of compromise. As the waitress, Ingber is so reticent you feel the poor girl keeps her self-esteem in the icebox, but she thaws to the flattery of the subtly lecherous professor -- a sage but maudlin figure compassionately played by James Slaughter.
Boyd Harris has the necessary bluster as Bo, the studly cowboy who figures he's plain entitled to hoist Cherie (the floozy) up to Montana, jes' because he loves her so. Jean Lichty's Cherie is clearly older than the 20 years that Inge called for, but she plays the ditzy singer's combination of innocence and experience with finesse.
The real interest, though, keeps drifting to the counterpoint characters surrounding the leads -- to James Judy's quietly unsettled turn as Virgil (who has looked after Bo for years), and to the knowing byplay between Timmy Ray James's delightfully sunny sheriff and Harry A. Winter's jovial bus driver. Some of these folks might get a little something going in this Hopper-esque diner (appealingly designed by Stephen Dobay), or on the other hand, someone might get left alone with a plate of eggs. The Bo-Cherie plot may be a fairy tale, but it's nicely complicated by Inge's outsider voice and Pendleton's thoughtful view.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
by William Inge. Directed by Austin Pendleton. Costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lights, Keith Parham; sound design, Christopher Baine. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Through March 14 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit http://www.olneytheatre.org.