Little Fish Theatre does everything right in their pitch-perfect revival of William Inge’s Bus Stop, the finest of the dozen-and-a-half productions I’ve reviewed at San Pedro’s little gem of a theater, and one absolutely worth a drive down Port Of Los Angeles way.
Drama buffs know Inge’s second-most-famous play from its 1955 Broadway run, though it’s the loosely-adapted 1956 movie version (starring Marilyn Monroe and Don Murray in roles originated by Kim Stanley and Albert Salmi) most likely to ring a bell in the heads of anyone over a certain age.
L.A. theater newcomers Amanda Broomell and Morgan West are cast to perfection as 19-year-old Ozarks-born-and-bred nightclub “chantoosie” Cherie and as Bo, the 21-year-old Montana cowpoke so smitten at first sight that he has “abducted” the blonde beauty with the intention of putting a ring on her wedding finger the second they arrive at the Montana ranch he calls home.
Unfortunately for the lovestruck Bo (though fortuitously for the less-than-lovestruck Cherie), the couple’s bus trek to Big Sky Country has gotten itself interrupted by a snow storm, one that has left them and their two fellow passengers stranded overnight in a small-town diner 25 miles west of Kansas City.
Not surprisingly, drama ensues, the kind that allows playwright Inge to exhibit the same understanding of small-town Midwesterners that earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Picnic just two years before Bus Stop’s debut.
These Midwesterners include tough-talking but tender-hearted diner owner Grace (Christina Morrell), more than willing to take advantage of a convenient “headache” (and the bus’s longer-than-usual rest stop) to head on up to her apartment for some late-night delight with bus driver Carl (Brad C. Light), upstairs hanky-panky that leaves the diner in the more than capable hands of teenage waitress Elma (Mara McCaffray), a high schooler with college dreams who has caught the fancy of Dr. Gerald Lyman (Rodney Rincon), a considerably older philosophy professor with an obvious drinking problem—and an equally obvious penchant for girls one-third his age.
Also along for the bus ride is Virgil (Doug Mattingly), the ranch hand who has raised Bo since his parents’ deaths ten years before, with diner regular Sheriff Will (Logan Loughmiller) completing the mix.
It’s been said that 90% of directing is casting, and if this adage is indeed true, then director Mark Piatelli scores a full 90 over 90 for Bus Stop’s meticulously hand-picked, couldn’t-be-better ensemble.
Resisting a director’s temptation to precast, Piatelli has dared to take chances on a number a number of recent East-to-West Coast transplants making auspicious Los Angeles and/or Little Fish theater debuts.
Not only that, Piatelli has resisted the temptation to cast “seasoned” actors in roles too often assigned to performers a good decade or two older than they are written.
Yes, NYU Tisch School Of The Arts grads Broomell and West may not quite be 19 and 21 respectively, but it’s easy to believe they are, a key factor in buying Cherie and Bo as innocents in love despite the former’s precocious half-decade of experience with men.
Casting the stunning Morrell as Grace (and not a 50something as in some Bus Stops past) works equally well, as does having Class Of ‘13 college grad McCaffray play college-bound Elma and Mattingly as a younger-than-usual Virgil.
Risky as some of Piatelli’s choices may have been, the director’s risk-taking has paid off in some of the most finely delineated performances any contemporary classic revival could hope to have.
Broomell’s Cherie melds bravado, insecurity, sensuality, sweetness, and a spot-on “hill folk” accent to create an indelible impression of a young woman whose stubbornness prevents her from seeing the gem of a man right before her eyes.
West’s sexy, star-making turn opposite Broomell leaves not a moment’s doubt about Bo’s sincerity and purity of heart despite his oafish efforts to win Cherie’s love and the countless times he finds himself foot planted firmly in mouth.
Morrell couldn’t be more marvelous as the hard-edged Grace, giving subtle glimpses of the generous soul (and the passionate urges) lurking behind the diner owner’s tough-cookie exterior.
Rincon is achingly real as a maudlin drunk who happens also to be a Shakespearean scholar and a Romeo-hearted romantic unfortunately saddled with illegal tastes in the opposite sex.
McCaffray’s wide-eyed innocent with a razor-sharp intelligence (if not the sharpest eye for dirty old men), Light’s folksy charmer with a long-simmering hankering for Grace, and Loughmiller’s no-nonsense lawman with a heart of gold are each and every one precisely-cut gems, as is the older-brother figure brought to still-waters-run-deep life by Mattingly, who also happens to play a mean guitar. (I’ll leave it up to you to determine if Virgil’s feelings for Bo are entirely fraternal/paternal.)
Not only does each of Piatelli’s cast members excel in scenes in which he or she is the center of focus, they are equally in-the-moment when the playwright shines the spotlight on other characters, no mean feat in a play in which almost everyone is onstage almost all the time.
And speaking of onstage, that’s basically where Robert Young’s inspired scenic design has the entire audience seated, or at least that’s how it felt to this reviewer, Young having reconfigured Little Fish Theatre to have audience members sitting along three of Grace’s Diner’s four walls, some seats extending out onto the diner floor, making it almost as if the ghosts of diners past had returned as eyewitnesses to the events taking place on this particular winter night. That Young’s set and T. Theresa Scarano’s props replicate the look of a 1950s small-town bus stop quite niftily is icing on one of Grace’s glazed donuts.
Michael Mullen’s costumes are pitch-perfect fits for time, place, and the folks wearing them. Kudos too to lighting designer Jenna Pletcher for ever so subtly signaling on which characters our attention should be, and to sound designer Stephanie Coltrin for her wintry effects and 1950s soundtrack.
Jessie Gaupel is stage manager. Jacob Severance is assistant stage manager. Bus Stop is produced by Tara Donovan.
Little Fish’s 2014 closer ends the season on the year’s highest note to date. You won’t see a finer Bus Stop any time soon, nor a revival of a contemporary classic done as absolutely right as this one.
Little Fish Theatre, 777 Centre St. San Pedro.
November 30, 2014