An entourage of three trucks and two vans will bring Montana Repertory Theatre to Billings for tonight's production of “Bus Stop” at the Alberta Bair Theater.
Rare is the company that still tours dramatic works by American playwrights. Montana Rep of Missoula is the largest among the university-based national touring companies bringing drama to towns that might not ordinarily get quality theater. The troupe pairs professional actors with graduate and undergrad students from the University of Montana. They'll hit cities in 15 states on their way to Pennsylvania following the Billings show.
The company began more than 40 years ago as a way to provide professional opportunities for students and grad students, director Jere Hodgin said. They've also got a heady mission — introducing audiences to American classics.
“These are the works that mirror the values of some of the things we consider most important and core in our country,” Hodgin said. “While it may appear on one level to be a narrow field, it's a worthy goal to celebrate that part of theater.”
After touring “To Kill a Mockingbird” for two years, the company opted to tackle a lesser known playwright, William Inge, who was a contemporary of Tennessee Williams. He was known for adding depth to some of the lighter-themed repertoire of the 1950s. When Inge was interviewed about “Bus Stop,” he said it was about love. But his work is without the pat Disney-style ending that modern audiences have come to expect.
“This play looks at how we see love, how we get it and how we don't get it,” Hodgin said. “The last few lines of the play are indicative of the fact that while the headstrong cowboy from Montana and the girl from the Ozarks find love, the other characters do not.”
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“Bus Stop” premiered on Broadway in 1955 and had a lengthy run for a nonmusical — 478 performances. It was nominated for four Tony Awards, including Best Play for William Inge. A 1956 film, starring Marilyn Monroe, was loosely based on the script. Monroe played Cherie, an aspiring nightclub singer with a “hill folk” past.
The play is set in the 1950s in rural Kansas where a freak snowstorm leaves eight characters stranded in a diner. Five of the people are passengers on a bus that's just passing through and the others are locals. Over the course of four hours inside the diner, some of the characters begin to pair up.
Hodgin said there are challenges to creating a set that resembles a 1950s diner with a raging blizzard outside.
“The big thing is there is a storm outside, how are we going to bring that inside? If we were dong a single performance in a permanent venue, we would have a snow trough. That's not something you can do when you're touring. So we relied on sound effects and lighting.”
Sepia tones and a retro wardrobe help establish the period, but Hodgin pointed out that the play's themes of loneliness and heartbreak are still here today.
Contact Jaci Webb at 657-1359 or firstname.lastname@example.org