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A tribute to Kansas playwright William Inge and ‘Bus Stop’

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William Inge, Kansas’ best-known playwright, is experiencing a resurgence of sorts. His small-town-Kansas-set play Picnic is now finishing a revival run on Broadway; big-city theater critics are now better appreciating his masterful character development and deep insight into small-town post-war social mores.

Inge, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the now somewhat-dated Picnic, and who was known in Broadway circles as the “Playwright of the Midwest” and the “grain belt Tennessee Williams,” would have turned 100 this May 5th.

Born in Independence, Kan., Inge attended Independence Community College and graduated from the University of Kansas in 1935 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Speech and Drama. He taught at Stephens College, in Columbia, Mo., from 1938 to 1943, became drama critic for the St. Louis Star Times, and then moved to New York to become a full-time playwright.

Though Inge never became a household name, and his plays never became as iconic as, say, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire or The Glass Menagerie, his best writing has arguably aged better than his more-famous contemporaries. For instance, Miller’s oft-revived Salesman, also now on Broadway, is often now interpreted as a play about dementia.

Inge once said that the people of the Great Plains states resembled the character of their landscape—that is, they’re “plain, level, open, honest and unadorned.” Inge also warned that the openness of the plains’ landscape brings extremes that “can destroy a season’s crops in a few hours, by hail or blizzards or tornadoes. Or a relentlessly burning sun that can desiccate the land like an Old Testament curse.”

Bus Stop, Inge’s best and most popular play, takes place during extreme Kansas weather: An early-spring blizzard closes highways and strands the play’s characters in a small-town Kansas diner that also serves as a bus stop, 20 miles west of Kansas City, Mo. Bus Stop, reportedly inspired by people Inge met in Tonganoxie, Kan., was staged brilliantly at the Missouri Reparatory in Kansas City in the spring of 2010.

The play’s characters, thrown together by chance, pit big-city bohemia against small-town Midwestern repression—a classic American theme that dates back hundreds of years and still resonates with current audiences. The various pairings of characters lead to amusing romances and sexual yearnings.

Bus Stop focuses on the romantic longings of three young characters, but the plot hinges on one couple: Cherie, a young chanteuse fresh from a Kansas City cabaret, who’s looking for a happy ending, and Bo, a young bucking Montana cowpoke. The third young naïf is Elma Duckworth, a waitress who dreams of the big-city literary life.

The cast’s remaining characters are older, wiser and more resigned to their lots in life. They include Dr. Lyman, a creepy, drunken, poetry-spouting university professor who’s also a sexual predator—though such a term had yet to be coined in the 1950s. Finally, there’re two local characters: Grace, the sultry and wise diner proprietress, and the sheriff who quietly enforces his town’s rules while always keeping an eye out for the trouble he so craves.

Bus Stop goes deepest when its frustrated, repressed characters yearn for life outside the confines of small-town life. Inge’s characters speak the same kind of language sometimes found in today’s stand-up comedy and in some of today’s journalism and television, but seldom found in today’s mainstream movies and theater.

Inge’s Bus Stop, Come Back, Little Sheba, and Picnic were all made into critically acclaimed movies, and all three are popular today. Inge’s best writing remains relevant for the same reason edgier character-driven 1950s movies—such as Sweet Smell of Success, 12 Angry Men, and Marty—and edgier 1950s and 60s TV shows—such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zoneare still widely watched today.

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