The thermostat is set at “cozy” for Center Stage’s new production of “Bus Stop,” the 1955 William Inge drama about a slightly worldly young woman trying to escape the clutches of a love-struck idiot galoot. The lonely drifters stranded together in a blizzard carry on with a cheerful brand of the blues: The acting is bright and the rural decor is awful purty in David Schweizer’s agreeable show.
This is a lot warmer than the gripping, frigid revival seen at the Olney Theatre Center two years ago, when director Austin Pendleton nudged the melancholy plot to its aching limits. In Schweizer’s staging, the chill is largely symbolic: The snow falling outside is gorgeous, but the walls of James Noone’s old-fashioned bus stop diner set glide gracefully into view without ever quite meeting.
You get the picture: Shelter from the storm is a scarce commodity in Inge’s world.
That idea registers far more fully onstage than in the better-known 1956 Marilyn Monroe picture, a rambunctious adaptation that cut out a lot of the valuable subplots. For Inge, the saga of big dumb Bo Decker and his loudmouthed pursuit of the comely Cherie was complemented by the subtler portraits of love and lust unfolding on the edges of this Kansas outpost.
On the sweet side, there’s the flirty byplay between Grace, the diner owner played here with earthy flair by Pilar Witherspoon, and Carl, the bus driver (whose romantic maneuvers could be a touch more understated in Malachy Cleary’s performance). More sour is the May-December intrigue between an innocent young waitress (the funny and appealing Kayla Ferguson) and a shifty, philosophizing old lech (Patrick Husted, his voice a whisky-soaked gargle).
These figures are grace notes amid the cacophony as swaggering Bo treats wooing like a rodeo event. Bo’s is a thankless role — body of a god, brain of a puppy — yet Jack Fellows manages not to be too abrasive with the unrelenting high spirits. That Fellows is strappingly handsome doesn’t hurt.
As Cherie, Susannah Hoffman daringly treads near Monroe territory: eyes wide, peroxide hairdo fashioned in a Marilyn cut. Hoffman’s performance is no mere knockoff, though: She quickly establishes her own wonderful ease with Cherie’s coltishness (which comes in part from clambering about in the tight slit skirts provided by costume designer Clint Ramos) and with tenderhearted Cherie’s tough shell.
As persuasive as Hoffman is, the flinty performances may be the most Inge-y. Michael D. Nichols has taciturn command as Will, the local sheriff trying to keep the peace, and Larry Tobias oozes authenticity as the guitar-playing old cowboy who’s been raising the wild orphan Bo. “Bus Stop,” driven by Bo’s broad, childish lurches toward the girlish Cherie, can seem like a play that’s too eager to please, and Schweizer doesn’t always guard against that. With Nichols and Tobias, he never has to.
by William Inge. Directed by David Schweizer. Lights, James F. Ingalls; original music and sound design, Lindsay Jones. About 2 hours. Through Dec. 23 at Center Stage, 700 North Calvert St., Baltimore. 410-332-0033. centerstage.org.