William Inge's 1955 play-turned-1956 movie (starring Marilyn Monroe) begins on a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, a bus pulls into Gracie's diner, disgorging a handful of helpless travelers stranded by a blizzard. The snow is deep, the phone lines down, and somewhere in the mathematically flat space between Kansas City and Topeka, the hours-old coffee and sawdust eggs aren't the only warmth to be found.

Dance-hall floozy Cherie (Erin Beute) enters first, on the run from horny cowboy Bo Decker (David Knoell) and his dreams of wedded bliss on a remote Montana ranch. He doesn't get out much and lives by the-caveman-and-big-stick model of romance. Cherie collects boyfriends and works the Blue Dragon (next to the stockyards, behind the offal processing plant). She doesn't allow table service when she's onstage, so while Bo's an option, she needs time to think.

Close behind Cherie, we find bus driver Carl (Don Fowler), who is sweet on Grace (Robin Olson). Carl's marital status is ambiguous, but his hands are big, and that's enough for Grace to come down with a migraine, which counts as foreplay in Kansas. It might be true love, but a cold night counts as last call and both seem to enjoy the time.

Lastly we see elegant dipsomaniac Dr. Gerald Lyman (Alan Sincic) enter, a failed English professor and successful child molester. He nearly takes off with the naive Elma (Katelyn Parsons), until he blacks out and thinks the better of it. It seems demon rum has a soft side, after all.

Grace's Diner looks like it hasn't been repainted in decades, and the dirt is so realistic the cockroaches won't even eat there. You'll want to wash your hands after each act and then return to see Knoell's Bo, a rambunctious cowboy ready to fight the devil himself, or at least kindly sheriff Will Masters (Joe Candelora). His sidekick, Virgil Blessing (Chris Gibson), tries to calm him down but reason and soothing words are insufficient. Soft-spoken Virgil ultimately plays his trump card, revealing that Bo is still a virgin. For some reason, this lets the wind out of Bo's sails, allowing him to convince the peroxide-blond Cherie to spend life in the Bitterroots.

Fowler's suave Carl finds gentle Grace an easy mark, but he's been working this route for ages. It's only a small tryst, but the town is just as small and word will spread fast, not from intrinsic meanness but from a general need to have some gossip for after Sunday service.

The oddest relation appears between young and impressionable Elma and the impressive Lyman, whom Sincic portrays with a professional grasp of alcoholism onstage. They seem made for each other – he the abusive romantic and she the eager-to-experience-life nymph. I could easily see her in Topeka – bruised, pregnant and alone.

Director Alan Bruun gently interprets Inge's hard look at the manifestations of love, using the physical expressions to highlight the emotional angle. The blunt trauma evolves in the triode of obvious relations, but there's more. Virgil and Bo were raised together, and now that Bo discovers a more adult relationship, Virgil can tell it's time to head elsewhere. Grace cares for Elma as a daughter, and even though Elma must make her own decisions, good advice is forthcoming. Even gruff old Will cares about his citizens and passers-through; just because he hands out free ass-whuppings, it doesn't mean he dislikes them.

Sheriff Will even takes the time to shake hands and make up with Bo before setting him on his way, certain in the future Bo will take a path through Omaha.

Snow AND love are in the air, and time spent in any diner will reveal it a soap opera all on its own. Bus Stop is worth the fare, fully up to the standards Mad Cow has led us to expect.

Bus Stop
Through Dec. 11
Mad Cow Theatre

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