William Inge's comedy, Bus Stop, is filled with sentimental characters and a slow-but-pleasant, slice-of-life storyline. Although dated, Bus Stop manages to charm its modern audience, if only due to our inherent longing for a simpler, more innocent past.
Most of William Inge's plays are a mixture of comedy and drama. Bus Stop is no different. It premiered on Broadway in 1955, just on the heels of Inge's first Broadway success, Picnic. In 1956, Bus Stop was brought to the silver screen, starring Marilyn Monroe in the role of Cherie.
Bus Stop takes place inside "a street-corner restaurant in a small Kansas town about thirty miles west of Kansas City." Due to icy conditions, an inter-state bus is forced to stop for the night. One by one, the bus passengers are introduced, each with their own quirks and conflicts.
The Romantic Leads
Bo Decker is a young ranch-owner from Montana. He has just fallen head-over-heels for a nightclub singer named Cherie. In fact, he has fallen so wildly in love with her (mainly because he just lost his virginity), he has whisked her onto a bus with the assumption that the young lady will marry him.
Cherie, on the other hand, is not exactly going along for the ride. Once she arrives at the bus stop, she informs the local sheriff, Will Masters, that she is being held against her will. What unfolds during the course of the evening is Bo's macho attempt at luring her into marriage, followed by a humbling fist-fight with the sheriff. Once he is put in his place, he begins to see things, especially Cherie, differently.
Virgil Blessing, Bo's best friend, and father-figure is the wisest and kindest of the bus passengers. Throughout the play, he tries to educate Bo on the ways of women and the "civilized" world outside of Montana.
Dr. Gerald Lyman is a retired college professor. While at the bus stop cafe, he enjoys reciting poetry, flirting with the teenage waitress, and steadily increasing his blood-alcohol levels.
Grace is the owner of the little restaurant. She is set in her ways, having gotten used to being alone. She is friendly, but not trusting. Grace doesn't get too attached to people, making the bus stop an ideal setting for her. In a revealing and amusing scene, Grace explains why she never serves sandwiches with cheese:
GRACE: I guess I'm kinda self-centered, Will. I don't care for cheese m'self, so I never think t'order it for someone else.
The young waitress, Elma, is the antithesis of Grace. Elma represents youth and naivete. She lends a sympathetic ear to the misbegotten characters, especially the old professor. In the final act, it is revealed that Kansas City authorities have chased Dr. Lyman out of town. Why? Because he keeps making advances on high-school girls. When Grace explains that "old fogies like him can't leave young girls alone," Elma is flattered instead of disgusted. This spot is one of many in which Bus Stop shows its wrinkles. Lyman's desire for Elma is shaded in sentimental tones, whereas a modern playwright would probably handle the professor's deviant nature in a much more serious manner.
Pros and Cons
Most of the characters are very willing to talk the night away as they wait for the roads to clear. The more they open their mouths, the more cliché the characters become. In many ways, Bus Stop feels like antiquated sit-com writing -- which is not necessarily a bad thing; though it does make the writing feel dated. Some of the humor and the comradery taste a bit stale (especially the talent show that Elma coerces the others into).
The finest characters in the play are the ones who don't blather as much as the others. Will Masters is the tough-but-fair sheriff. Think of Andy Griffith's amiable nature backed up by Chuck Norris' ability to kick butt. That's Will Masters in a nutshell.
Virgil Blessing, perhaps the most admirable character in Bus Stop, is the one who tugs at our heartstrings the most. In the conclusion, when the cafe is closing up, Virgil is forced to stand outside, alone in the dark, frosty morning. Grace says, "I'm sorry, Mister, but you're just left out in the cold."
Virgil replies, mainly to himself, "Well… that's what happens to some people." It's a line that redeems the play - a moment of truth that transcends its dated style and its otherwise flat characters. It's a line that makes us wish that the Virgil Blessings and the William Inges of the world would find comfort and solace, a warm place to take off life's chill.