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A CurtainUp Review
Michael Schweikardt provides the most basic of sets, a few planks of wood, some chairs and a battered rolling cart of garage supplies. Yet, by the end of this production, some in the audience were teary-eyed and most were touched because this little play is not really so little at all, dealing as it does with weighty subjects: a struggle of teenage boys trapped between the most influential church in town, their own passions, and a struggling gas station.
Hatred is at its core and the hatred is multilayered. So let’s start at the beginning, the battle of the bus.
In a middle-America small town, Harry (Travis Mitchell), a frustrated garage owner is up in arms against the influential Golden Rule Bible Fellowship. The fellowship’s bus has been parked for years in front of the garage as a landmark for the church. Harry, financially strapped, is now demanding that the church remove the bus. As he tells his mechanic, Sloat, “Golden Rule Bible Fellowship’s got a Starbucks in their lobby. Those son bitches can pay six dollars for a cup of coffee but they can’t give me a damned dime for where that bus has been for years. Years. . .I tell you, Sloat, I’ve had it.”
Except for Sloat (Robert Nuner), who is moving into the dim years, Harry leads a lonely life, separated from his God-fearing wife, Sarah, who has discouraged Ian, their teenage son, from seeing his father. Ian, however, has been sneaking down to the garage, not to see his father but to rendezvous with 16-year old Jordan , exploring their sexual attraction in the dilapidated, locked-up bus. They are aware of the dangers facing them in the homophobic society and the influence of the fundamentalist church. They do not know, however, they have already been seen in the bus.
When the Golden Rule tells its conservative parishioners to boycott Harry’ garage, Harry gets Sloat to help him chain the bus and remove it from the property. When they suddenly spot an oil leak, Harry gets an idea and sends Sloat to buy a potent arson chemical. Meanwhile, Ian, upset about what he decides is his church’s unfair boycott of his father’s garage, begins thinking up his own plan. Obviously, something is going to hit the fan spurring an ending that is heartbreakingly avoidable and yet offers a glimmer of hope that sometimes the road to understanding can be as a simple as a firm, positive handshake.
Director John Simkins,declared after reading the script, “I’ve never fashioned myself as an activist, but this play has me all fired up!” One sense the heart that has been put into writing this timely and intimate family/morality play, even though much could be edited. This is especially true of the little girl’s overly detailed narrations. She visualizes the scenes well but often stops the momentum. Adult Julia Lawler is believable as the 10-year-old, and also portraying the multitude of other characters-customers, store owners, and the pastor of the Golden Rule Bible Fellowship.
Explored and performed with depth, the teenage boys, Will Roland as Ian and Bryan Fitzgerald as Jordan, are sensitive, gawky, naive and hormonal; In other words, completely adolescent. Ian is more apprehensive with guilt more evident since he and his mother are long-time members of the Golden Rule Bible Fellowship. The boys’ relationship is touching and they play their sex scenes subtly, often covered in a sleeping bag, keeping the focus emotional, not physical.
Robert Nuner plays the dim, aging Sloat, fearful of the community but loyal to his boss. Travis Mitchell’s Harry, while blustering and angry is also lonely, worried and suspicious about his son’s sexuality. Kerry McGann as Sarah is a mother multi-tasking work, the church, resentful against her ex-husband and driven to keep her Ian on the right, pious track.
This play was not designed for the New York stage but to go on the road and reach more conservative audiences It is the first theater work by James Lantz, an award-winning commercial filmmaker and screenwriter, a non-activist, married and a father of two young children. He plans to produce a symbolic performance of The Bus near one of the most homophobic places in the country, The Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas which came to national prominence in 1998 for picketing the funeral of Matthew Shepard and which since then has staged over 45,000 anti-gay protests many at schools.” One hopeful sign is that Lantz's project is supported by Nate Phelps, who happens to be the son of the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church.
Simplicity does not mean simple. The small-town simplicity of The Bus packs a wallop that is worth your time, whatever your beliefs.
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