Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Donuts, Delusions and Delights

Posted by Bruce Miller
William Inge is the greatest 20th century playwright of the American Midwest. It’s true that fellow “Great American Playwright” Thornton Wilder was born in the Midwest (Madison, Wisconsin), but Wilder grew up in China and California before settling in New England. His Midwestern influences were few.

Inge on the other hand was born in a small town in Kansas and, except for a brief college stint in Tennessee, remained in the Midwest for the first 35 years of his life. While working as a theatre critic for a newspaper in St. Louis, Inge met fellow St. Louisian Tennessee Williams. It was after befriending Williams and seeing The Glass Menagerie, Williams’s first major play, that Inge was inspired to become a playwright himself.

Inge’s first play, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, is dedicated to Tennessee Williams.

In all of his plays, Inge wears his American homespun heart on his sleeve. Each of his major works focuses on everyday men and women of America’s heartland. His characters are less tortured than those of Eugene O’Neill, less poetic than those of Tennessee Williams, and less iconic, heroic and/or anti-heroic than those of Arthur Miller.

Inge casts his light on the common men and women who are more often overlooked by other Great American Playwrights, and finds in them a dignity and humanity—an American-ness—worthy of our time and consideration.

Bus Stop is a perfect introduction to the plays of William Inge. It takes place in 1955 in a modest roadside diner (bus stop) during a howling blizzard that closes down the highways east of Kansas City, at least for the night. When the northbound bus pulls in seeking refuge, a diverse group of passengers pile into Grace’s Diner seeking coffee and donuts, human contact and love, and, well, grace.

Inge set the play during the last snowstorm of March. Due to the timing of this production, we’ve set ours during the first snowstorm of December. Grace and her niece Elma have decorated the diner, simply, for the upcoming holidays. Without wanting to stretch a point, it occurred to me during last night’s run through that the low income wayfarers requesting warmth around Grace’s two-burner stove are at least somewhat reminiscent of that traveling couple who nearly 20 centuries earlier asked for shelter from another innkeeper.

Bus Stop is a comedy, a holiday heartwarmer, and a representative work of a playwright who was the most popular Broadway dramatist of the 1950s. With Come Back, Little Sheba, Picnic, Bus Stop and Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Inge produced one Broadway smash after another. The Broadway run of Bus Stop was such a success that it was immediately turned into an Oscar-nominated movie starring Marilyn Monroe, Don Murray and Eileen Heckert. After the film’s commercial success, Bus Stop was expanded into a TV series in the early 60s, with Inge himself serving as a script consultant.

I hope you’ll join us for this chance to reconnect with “an American Chekhov,” “the poet-laureate of the Midwest.”

See you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller


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