Hang out at this "Bus Stop"
Milwaukee audiences, meet Anne Walaszek and Brenna Kempf. They may be undergraduate theater students at UW-Parkside, but they are key contributors to the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's pitch-perfect production of "Bus Stop" that opened last weekend.
Seeing two bright young Wisconsin actors emerge is part of the fun going on in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center. Director Lisa Kornetsky's deft staging makes William Inge's character-driven comedy fly 57 years after its Broadway debut.
"Bus Stop" is the best known among Inge's string of 1950s stage hits because Marilyn Monroe starred in a significantly rewritten movie version released in 1956. The unadulterated play, minus MM, is set in a greasy spoon in rural Kansas during a blizzard.
The diner is a stop for buses that take passengers across the plains, and on this particular night, a motor coach must spend a few hours there while highway crews clear the road. Four riders and the driver kill time in the restaurant with the middle-aged female owner and a teenage waitress. The sheriff comes and goes.
We get to watch the interaction.
The characters are types, with a twist. Inge treats them with sweet generosity, and if the production is good, the audience does, too. We see their foibles and contradictions as affectionate reflections of human nature.
Beyond that, the play is underlaid with a thin layer of melancholy that adds texture and a bit of depth. Many revivals don't understand or can't achieve that. The Chamber Theatre nails it.
Conflict between two of the bus passengers is "Bus Stop's" central story line. A young Ozark floozie who calls herself a chanteuse is being harassed by a hunky but naive young rodeo rider. He thinks he can win a woman the same way he ropes a steer, with physical muscle and force of will.
Cherie, the chanteuse, likes the attention but doesn't appreciate the style.
Walaszek brings a skittish vulnerability to Cherie that is quite compelling. She is a study in shades and contrasts. The actress has the self-assurance of a young woman who knows she is physically attractive and the desperation of someone who knows she has been getting by on smoke and mirrors.
Watch Walaszek thoroughly inhabit Cherie, nervously scrunching her mouth to one side in a frequent tic. She is always in the moment.
Another UW-Parkside student, Ethan Hall, plays her suitor, and he has yet to reach Walaszek's acting level. Parkside is collaborating with the Chamber Theatre on this production.
The previously mentioned Kempf floods the stage with effusive energy whenever she is in a scene. She portrays the teenage waitress, and her enthusiastic performance is so genuinely sunny, all that snow outside the diner would melt if she went outdoors.
Jacque Troy possesses pin-point comic timing and just the right amount of world weariness as the cafe proprietor. Dan Katula and Patrick Lawlor deliver classic portraits of types.
As the sheriff, Katula tempers his imposing physical presence with warmth and wisdom. Lawlor is a savvy old ranch hand with a touch of lonesome cowboy sadness.
Jamie Cheatham and Doug Jarecki round out the cast.
Special notice must be given to Keith Harris' fabulously detailed 1950s diner set. I want to eat there.
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