Theater Review: Acts Pauses at ‘Bus Stop’
By J.E. BALLANTYNE JR.
The snow hasn’t been flying around here for a while, but it’s knee-deep at the Acts Performing Arts Center in Sharon, Pa.
That’s where the theater is presenting the classic comic-drama “Bus Stop.” Despite some starts and stops, the play eventually gets to where it’s going.
A snowstorm has forced the bus to stop at a small diner in Kansas. Disembarking are Carl the bus driver and passengers Cherie, Dr. Gerald Lyman, Virgil Blessing and Bo Decker. They are joined by local residents Elma Duckworth, Grace Howland and Sheriff Will Masters.
In the William Inge play, these unwilling characters are forced into an extended layover where the best and worst in each seems to rise to the top.
The eight-character comedy/drama starts out a little slow but picks up steam as each character is introduced.
Unfortunately, that steam does not seem to be as steady as it should as the show moves along. In many spots, cue pickups were sluggish.
Cat Smith plays Grace Howland, the owner of the diner. She presents a bit of crusty small-town woman who has seen it all, and maybe done a little bit more. She probably knows “where all the bodies are buried.” Smith’s character is likable and she sets the tone for what the other townsfolk might be like since we don’t meet many of them. She has been in business for a while, and Smith paints a picture of Grace that is both sensitive and strong. She is comfortable in the role and thus makes Grace a real person.
Her “right-hand” girl in the diner is Elma Duckworth. Played by Emily Royer, Elma is young and naive and only too happy to please. Royer had a slow start and took some time to warm up to. Her early scenes seemed almost too rehearsed, but once she got rolling, the character grew and took on a dimension of almost wide-eyed wonder. The character doesn’t really begin to blossom until she is introduced to the outside world (the bus passengers). It is her interactions with each passenger that lifts Royer’s performance to a more interesting level.
Andrew J. Pivarnik wanders in as Sheriff Will Masters to inform the ladies that the bus passengers will be staying for a while due to the weather. Pivarnik came off rather stiff and cardboardy in the opening scene. He didn’t seem to have the oomph to push the character to believability. Granted, much of his time is spent sitting at a table with little dialog. That makes character building difficult.
His character really didn’t hit its stride until Act III, where he turns in a commendable and believable performance following the altercation with Bo Decker. He comes on strong, authoritative and as a much-needed father figure late in the show.
As the passengers stream in, Wendy Wygant’s Cherie grabs attention as she seeks asylum from an obnoxious male passenger. Her energy lights up the stage as her frantic attempts at escape elevate the show to another level. Cherie, a singer at a dive nightclub in Kansas City, was unwillingly placed on the bus by Bo Decker. Wygant handles the character well as she deftly takes Cherie through numerous and sundry emotional ups and downs. She crafts the end product well as she moves toward the final scene.
Mark Nelson, as Dr. Gerald Lyman, presents the most comedic character of the piece – at least, at the outset. Lyman, a former college professor and devoted alcoholic, has some of the best lines early on. Between nips from his hidden flask, he spouts Shakespeare and stories about his three former wives. Nelson seems to be truly having fun with this character and does it well. His line delivery is realistic and natural – which is sometimes difficult when playing a drunk. Many actors seem too overdue; Nelson doesn’t. The only problem came late in the show when Lyman was sufficiently sauced – his drunken delivery made it difficult at times to catch what he was saying. Nelson does a nice transition following a “passed-out” night on a diner bench.
Bus driver Carl is on and off numerous times and is played by Mike Allenbaugh. Not a major role, he is important as a connection to Grace. It is obvious early on that the two have something going as they see each other frequently as he drives through town. Allenbaugh has problems developing the Carl character very far. His line delivery seemed stilted and unnatural in many spots. It seemed that he was “trying to act” rather than just letting the acting happen.
Brandon Donaldson’s Bo Decker provides the major plot line in the show. Decker is determined to take the unwilling Cherie to Montana, to his ranch, and marry her. A loud, bombastic and seemingly self-centered character, Bo can’t understand why every woman doesn’t fall all over him. Akin to the caveman with a club mentality, his approach to women has the opposite effect that he intends.
The only problem with Donaldson’s approach to the character was that he didn’t take it far enough. The character should be so far over the top that the audience should rail against every approach he makes toward Cherie. In so doing the audience should welcome the confrontation with the sheriff.
It would also make Bo’s turnaround in Act III that much more heartfelt. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel either because the character wasn’t overly aggressive enough early on. There needs to be a feeling of conceit by Decker that ends up being a hiding place from insecurity – and it wasn’t there.
Decker’s friend, Virgil Blessing, played by Jason Robert Miller, is perhaps the most unsung role in the show. Blessing is quiet, a bit introverted, and stands in the shadow of Decker. Blessing did all of these things well but comes on stronger in Act III. Miller was up to the task.
Set design by Bob and Cheri Bibler is well executed and plays well as a ’50s Midwest diner complete with period counter, stools and decor. Costumers Dan DeSantis and Cat Smith did well in outfitting the cast. The only thing missing was a little bit of snow for each character to shake off as they entered.
“Bus Stop” is not produced as much as it used to be years ago. The Inge play has much to say, and the characters provide some great challenges to actors. The theater and director Maria Petrella-Ackley are to be commended for resurrecting this classic piece of American theater to be enjoyed once again.
Acts (originally, Area Community Theater of Sharpsville) was formerly located in Sharpsville but moved to its beautiful new home in a former church in downtown Sharon last year. It’s a short drive from Youngstown and worth it. They’re doing good theater in a nice facility.
“Bus Stop” will continue at 7:30 p.m. May 26 and 27 and 2:30 p.m. May 28. The theater is at 40 S. Irvine Ave., at the intersection of State Street.
Pictured at top: Mark Nelson and Emily Royer in a scene from “Bus Stop.”
Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.