A snowstorm halts the progress of a bus through Kansas, and its passengers are forced to remain together overnight in a small roadside diner. Amid the late-night public-transit customers getting off the coach are two more unusual riders. Bo Decker is the cocky young heir to a large cattle ranch in Montana, and he’s returning home after his first visit to the big city for the rodeo. In addition to some prizes for his bull riding, Bo has captured something else that he hopes to bring back with him — a sexy nightclub singer named Cherie. His head turned by a night in Cherie’s bed, Bo believes that he and the (somewhat) more sophisticated singer are engaged. Cherie, on the other hand, has no such illusions, and she takes advantage of the temporary weather delay to inform the local sheriff that she is being taken to Montana against her will. With this setup, the mainspring is in place for William Inge’s edgy yet homespun mid-’50s comedy.
When Inge wrote Bus Stop, he already had two major hits on Broadway to his credit — Come Back, Little Sheba and Picnic. Even after achieving substantial success both onstage and in film, Inge continued to mine his early life in the Midwest for material, basing Bus Stop on the social conflicts he had observed growing up in Kansas, and in particular on the tension between small-town life and big-city aspirations.
For Inge, the city was the place to realize one’s ambitions, and the determination he gives to showbiz-hopeful Cherie appears to be at least partly his own — a determination Inge realized first as a newspaper drama critic in St. Louis and then later as a top Broadway playwright and award-winning Hollywood screenwriter. But even after earning all the big prizes that show business could offer — Tonys, Oscars, and a Pulitzer — William Inge still couldn’t shake those small-town blues. In June of 1973, just days before his latest play, The Last Pad, was set to premiere in Los Angeles with an exciting young actor named Nick Nolte in the lead, Inge committed suicide by carbon-monoxide poisoning. He was 60 years old.
Michael Gros, the director of the Santa Barbara City College Theatre Group’s production of Bus Stop, which opens this weekend, chose the play because he believes that, beyond the fluctuations of Inge’s reputation in the decades since his death, the work has left great lasting value. “Inge tells stories from the heartland,” Gros told me by phone last week, “and his characters are regular men and women. He draws material from everyday life, and I believe that audiences will recognize these men and women onstage, complete with their foibles, their strengths, and their demons.” By way of distinguishing Inge’s achievement from that of his immediate predecessor and sometime mentor, Tennessee Williams, Gros emphasizes the down-to-earth quality of his characters, saying that, “unlike in Williams, there’s no magic or moonshine to it. Inge’s great strength is his willingness to accept the ultimate challenge in theater, which is how to make people who are ‘just us folks’ interesting. I want people who come to see this Bus Stop to see their own family in the characters and to sympathize with them in that intimate way, to want them to achieve success. If we get this right, the audience is going to root for them.”
The play’s themes are certainly universal ones, at least as Gros poses them. “The storm becomes a metaphor for these relationships — if you’re alive, you have an obligation to move forward. If that leaves you alone, then you have to learn the difference between being alone and being lonely,” said Gros, adding that “it’s been exciting and scary at the same time” to direct such an ensemble-oriented show. “How can you tell who’s the lead? If you go by time onstage, it could be any of them.”
Bus Stop runs through Saturday, November 2, at Santa Barbara City College’s Garvin Theatre. For tickets and information, call (805) 965-5935 or visit theatregroupsbcc.com.