by Micheal Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n the unlikely setting of an all-night diner in Kansas, Bus Stop presents a dark night of the soul.

In a strong production that balances comedy with searing moments of loneliness, Interplayers is putting on a show (through Oct. 1) that takes mundane materials and weaves them into an examination of why it is we think we deserve love, and how poor we are at extending it.

William Inge's classic play dissects three couples: the impetuous young'uns, a cowboy and a nightclub singer; a pair of working-class sexagenarians; and an old lecher who has his eyes all over an unsuspecting teenage girl. Nearly everybody in this diner is placing an order for a main dish of sex with a side order of love and affection. Couples grow apart and come back together; some decide to shoot for the moon; others determine to go their separate ways. A couple of outsiders -- the local sheriff, a laconic sidekick -- stand outside the love-play while reinforcing Inge's insistence on our common loneliness. A few hours in a snowstorm, and people's lives change forever: It's Chekhov on the prairie.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & espite some misdirected moments and a couple of unconvincing performances, director Scott Alan Smith's ensemble delineates most of the moments of loneliness and hope. As the teenage waitress, Christine Cresswell brightens endearingly whenever the object of her affection glances at her; her ham acting in an impromptu second-act floorshow is hilarious. Cresswell's too old for the part of the high school ing & eacute;nue, but she makes her pony tail bounce and delivers gee-whiz lines with conviction. As the sheriff, Maynard Villers projects dignity and power, his barrel chest acting as an enforcer even he delivers many of the play's wisest one-liners. For a quick acting lesson, watch William Rhodes mix knowing asides about his passengers with slight insecurity about how he's doing with that cute Grace over there in her waitress uniform.

Damon Abdallah, with eyes downcast and his gruff voice deepened, plays the loyal sidekick with moral authority. He even accompanies himself in a lonesome-cowboy song that resonates throughout the ensemble. Abdallah rides his portrayal of a leathery old cowboy all the way to the play's chief symbol of generosity left unfulfilled.

Kelly Eviston Quinnett pulls off a dumb-blonde characterization, her angular limbs flailing about with eagerness for a good man and her shoulders scrunched down with the weight of all the disappointing ones she's known. It's a performance that could use some toning down -- we get that Cherie's a hick from the Ozarks -- but Quinnett's delighted laugh-squeals, combined with her refusal to be mistreated (arms crossed in quiet dignity) demonstrate that while Cherie may have been roughed up by her life, she's also capable of transforming it.

In the show's highlight, Jack Bannon delivers a truly exceptional performance as an alcoholic former English professor who's full of lust for young girls and loathing for himself. Bannon pulls off the difficult trick of appearing to get progressively more drunk as the evening wears on -- more full of self-disgust, too, and more amused by his own inconsequentiality. Some characters in Bus Stop make poor decisions; others make better ones; Bannon turns the final choice of his educated and embittered old codger into Inge's brightest, most hopeful light. It's the performance of the night, and among the very best work that Bannon has done locally.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & n the other hand, unfortunately, some of this production's best aspects are undercut by some misdirection, some mugging for laughs, and a central cowboy character who's just too tame.

As Bo, the impetuous cowboy who has lassoed Cherie the singer into a bus-trip abduction and "honeymoon," Jonathan Rau needs to command the stage from his first entrance. Rau simply doesn't have enough exuberance in the part.

Bo's an open wound -- full of needs, full of himself, full of the assumption that other people will always do his bidding. But with his shifty eyes, tentative steps and sometimes-flat delivery, Rau doesn't present any naked or untutored desire. By the time he angrily kicks down a chair, it's too late to convince us that Bo's capable of dangerous outbursts. The shuffling feet, the sideways glances searching for approval -- these gestures serve Rau well in the final reconciliation scene, but early on, they make an aggressive character seem tentative. Inge has also written some complexity into his firecracker cowboy: When it comes to romance, Bo turns out to be an idealist. Rau has a lot to work with in the role, in other words, but he doesn't deliver much.

Set designer Desma Murphy has created a believable refuge from the blizzard outside. The tables in Grace's Diner may be mismatched, and dirt may be ground into the cracks in the checkerboard floor, but the ketchup bottles on the counter are lined up just so, and the donuts under the glass dome are only a day or two old, no more. It'd be a clean and well-lighted place -- suitable for examining the characters' desires -- if only it were better lit.

Director Smith, unfortunately, has guided light designer Brian Ritter into the pitfall of repeated, distracting light changes, as if we're not capable of switching our focus from the couple talking in the corner over here back to those people whispering behind the counter. In an otherwise realistic play, the light shifts call way too much attention to themselves.

As the older waitress and owner of this joint, Ellen Travolta catches Grace's comedy but fumbles the sadness. Travolta's good at gag lines, and she brightens endearingly when her special guy, the round-bellied bus driver, comes lumbering into the diner. But sometimes the timing's off; sometimes the loneliness isn't apparent. It must be tempting to go for easy laughs, because playgoers were tittering over the idea that a woman in her 60s might still want to have sex, but less girlishness and more inwardness would have rounded the characterization. The people stuck in this diner will do nearly anything to avoid loneliness; Grace is desperate too.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & aturday night's audience loved what they had witnessed, and it's certainly true that Bus Stop, in performance, can be both funny and sobering. The final tableau of loneliness felt like a classic moment in American drama embodied, and one that everybody ought to see.

Inge isn't about to let us forget that there's a lot of loneliness in bus stations and all-night diners, even if some of his characters do work out a happy ending for themselves. More than most productions -- and far more than the awful movie of 50 years ago -- Interplayers' Bus Stop portrays the many tiny steps that people take in ruining or ennobling their lives.

Golden Harvest: Flour Sacks from the Permanent Collection @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays. Continues through May 15
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.