The Setup: In the 1950s William Inge was lauded along with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller as one of the three great American playwrights. His four seminal plays, Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), Picnic (1953), Bus Stop (1955), and Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957), were critical and popular successes, with Picnic winning the Pulitzer, and Inge winning an original screenplay Oscar for Splendor in the Grass (1961). Inge chronicled small-town Midwestern life by emphasizing the undercurrent of sexual frustration and failed dreams --- sort of a fly-over-country Chekhov. His works define an outsider's view of the world, and his last, unsuccessful plays are overt cries from a very sad gay man in the closet.
Over the decades, his four great works from the '50s have suffered a precipitous critical decline, which they don't deserve, so it's refreshing to see such a loving revival of his one true comedy at Texas Repertory Theatre Co.
The Execution: All the characters are outsiders -- bus driver and passengers, waitresses, and the sheriff -- stranded in Grace's diner on the Kansas interstate by a blizzard. (A gracious tip of the hat to designer Jodi Bobrovsky for her battered and well lived-in set.) Rodeo cowboy Bo (Zachary Lewis, a tall drink of water in constant swirl) has fallen head over heels for untalented big-city bar-singer Cherie (charming Eva Laporte, though she sports a very unflattering platinum flip wig). Bo, after a night of lust, has forced her onto the bus and is taking her to his Montana ranch to get married. Impetuous and headstrong, he can't fathom why she hasn't fallen for him just as hard. Hardboiled owner Grace (lively Lisa Thomas Morrison) carries on with bus driver Carl (Jeffrey Lane); creepy former professor Dr. Lyman (Ted Doolittle) puts the make on teenage waitress Elma (Bethany McCade); town sheriff/church deacon Will (David Walker) keeps the peace by beating up rowdy Bo; and Bo's ranch foreman and father substitute Virgil (Ray Phillips) tries to teach Bo how to grow up. In this well-made play, everyone gets his moment to shine, and Inge spreads the love around. Lewis and LaPorte are nicely matched and play off each other with genuine sparkle and sparks. Itchy and full of macho posturing, Lewis never stays still, either rubbing his legs in nervous frustration or thumping his chest with youthful bravado. Seeing Cherie at the lunch counter, he bounds to her and hops over another stool to get cozy. He makes Bo a fascinating blur of adolescent manhood.
The Verdict: Texas Rep brings Inge back into the light.
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(Through February 20, Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd., 281-583-7573.)