Written by: William Inge
At: Athenaeum Theater, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: $20-$30; EclipseTheatre.com . Runs through: August 19
The women of Bus Stop are given little room to breathe.
They are shouted over, leered at and repeatedly reminded they owe their happiness to men. They all comment on the way they are treated, but few allies listen. Even when men hear them, conflict is still resolved via a testosterone-driven fistfight. I would never have guessed that William Inge's drama about love and regret might comment so sharply on our contemporary struggles concerning gender, harassment, and respect, but thanks to Steve Scott's incisive direction of this Eclipse production, here we are.
Grace ( Sarah Bright ) runs a Kansas diner frequented by stop-overs on their way to places like Topeka and Denver. Her bright and wide-eyed waitress Elma ( Jillian Warden ) serves up coffee and soaks up stories from travelers. One such traveler is Cherie ( Daniella Pereira ), a self-described chanteuse who rushes into the restaurant looking for protection from the man who abducted her only hours before. His name is Bo ( Anthony Conway ); he's a Montana cowboy intent on marrying Cherie and building a life with her on his family ranch. His father figure Virgil ( Zach Bloomfield ) cautions him to slow down, as does local sheriff Will ( Tim Kough ), but the hot-headed rodeo champ refuses to accept Cherie's rejection. Meanwhile, Grace deals with the suggestive advances of bus driver Carl ( Matt Thinnes ) while Elma is targeted by disgraced Dr. Lyman ( Ted Hoerl ), who has trouble keeping away from young girls.
No customer or server can get away from one another for very long in scenic designer Kevin Hagan's cramped table seating. Rather than fight the theatricality of overheard conversations and broken trains of thought, Scott embraces these devices by having men butt in to other's business using insidious methods. Bo means well, but his bouncing-off-the-walls declarations of love derail Cherie's ability to tell him what she actually wants from him. More obviously, Lyman's open body language and intimate lean-ins show everyone what he intends, even if the naive Elma cannot perceive it.
Pereira as Cheri has a deadpan sense of humor and determined sensibility that more than makes her a match for Conway's bullheaded energy, while Warden walks a fine line between innocence and curiosity. Bright betrays Grace's wistful sadness with only a look at her diner as she turns out the lights. If Scott cannot pack the male figures with as much pathos as the female characters, that may be due to Inge's plotting, which wraps the story up with dialogue about Virgil's regret, rather than Grace's. Luckily, Scott improves on that moment, too.
Inge's script contains a telling exchange between Bo and Will late in the action. The cowboy proclaims he has a right to what he loves, implying he can do what he likes to bully Cheri into marrying him. Will responds that Bo will see his love returned only if he takes the actions necessary to deserve it. Bus Stop is not a play about 2018, but I am glad it is playing in Chicago right now.