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Is Inge coming back into vogue?

'Bus Stop' puts spotlight back on playwright

Noah Bean (right) and Adam LeFevre rehearse a fight scene for the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of 'Bus Stop.' Noah Bean (right) and Adam LeFevre rehearse a fight scene for the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of "Bus Stop." (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / September 19, 2010

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Huntington Theatre Company artistic director Peter DuBois didn’t have to look far to find someone raising an eyebrow or two at his desire to revive William Inge’s “Bus Stop.’’ The first time he brought up the idea of putting the 1955 romantic comedy into the Huntington’s current season, a member of his own staff questioned his sanity.

“ ‘Oh, God, not that old-fashioned movie with Marilyn Monroe!’ ’’ the staffer groaned, in DuBois’s recollection. As he told the story over breakfast in the South End recently, laughter bubbled through his speech. “She was like, ‘Have you lost your mind?’ It was like she couldn’t believe that I was even talking about it. And I was like, No, no, no, it’s a really great play!’’

Inge, the Kansas playwright whose four consecutive Broadway hits — and one Pulitzer Prize, for “Picnic’’ in 1953 — made him the hottest dramatist of the 1950s, has been a tougher sell ever since. His last success, the 1961 movie “Splendor in the Grass,’’ came the year fellow Kansan Dwight D. Eisenhower exited the White House. Directed by Elia Kazan, it won Inge an Academy Award for best original screenplay. But Inge’s once-golden touch eluded him for the rest of his life, which ended in 1973 in Los Angeles when the 60-year-old playwright climbed into the Mercedes-Benz in his garage, turned the key in the ignition, and breathed the fumes until he stopped breathing.

Gay, closeted, and self-loathing, Inge was a hard-core alcoholic who struggled for decades to control his drinking, his depression, and his sexuality. He had always taken rejection of his work very much to heart: When up-and-coming critic Robert Brustein assailed him as a “fiddle with one string’’ in a 1958 Harper’s magazine cover essay, Ralph F. Voss recounts in his 1989 biography, “A Life of William Inge,’’ “Inge called Brustein to protest, and he wept on the phone.’’ Even his successes, like his first Broadway play, “Come Back, Little Sheba,’’ left him “in a funk,’’ Inge later wrote.

But playwrights go in and out of fashion; when Inge was at his most popular, his friend and mentor, Tennessee Williams, was experiencing the occasional flop and envying Inge’s lack of them. Since then, Williams — like another Inge contemporary and fellow Pulitzer winner, Arthur Miller — has had dozens of Broadway productions, numerous revivals among them, while Inge has seldom returned to the Great White Way, and never for long. Now he may be coming back into vogue.

Chicago, locus of much of the nation’s most innovative drama, has embraced Inge in the past several years, with production after production by artists including David Cromer, one of the most in-demand directors in theater and the man whose off-Broadway production of “Our Town’’ — which ran for 19 months, finally closing last Sunday — managed to make Thornton Wilder cool again. In Boston, the Huntington’s “Bus Stop,’’ which is now in previews and opens Wednesday, comes on the heels of Stoneham Theatre’s 2009 production of “Picnic.’’ And agent Buddy Thomas of International Creative Management, which handles the Inge estate, said he has seen a definite uptick in requests for rights.

Among other projects, Thomas is in what he called “serious discussions’’ with a New York nonprofit theater that wants to bring Inge’s never-produced play, “Off the Main Road’’ — which got a reading last year at the off-off-Broadway Flea Theatre, starring Sigourney Weaver and Frances Sternhagen — to Broadway. (As for Cromer’s much-anticipated Broadway production of “Picnic,’’ for which auditions were announced and then canceled, Thomas cautioned against assuming that Cromer remains attached to the project. A representative of the director, whose 2008 Chicago production of “Picnic’’ was critically acclaimed, declined to comment.)

Inge has been a favorite of amateur theater all along, however. “Picnic’’ and “Bus Stop’’ are staples of high school, college, and community theater, with each play receiving an average of 55 to 65 productions a year. The ranking places them alongside “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,’’ “Waiting for Godot,’’ “Of Mice and Men,’’ and “Inherit the Wind,’’ according to Craig Pospisil, who oversees nonprofessional licensing for Dramatists Play Service.

A meticulous author, Inge was a master of the well-made play, a form that was hardly cutting-edge even in his heyday. He was particularly skilled at writing female characters, a number of them surprisingly “sex-positive,’’ as DuBois put it. Behind the conventional façades of Inge’s heartland denizens lies a roiling mass of conflicts, frustrations, and longings, many of them sexual, many of them suppressed.

The problem with staging his work, Michael Phillips wrote five years ago in a Chicago Tribune piece that marveled at a rare and well-received revival of one of his Broadway failures, “Natural Affection,’’ is that “Inge can be done poorly all too easily.’’

That, explained Peter Ellenstein, artistic director of the William Inge Center for the Arts in Independence, Kan., is because Inge employed everyday speech to write complex characters, making his plays deceptively difficult to perform. “He was neither political, as Miller was, nor poetical, as Williams was,’’ he said. “If he’s not really well-rehearsed, he can come off as kind of mundane.’’

Noting that the plays’ seeming mildness reflects Inge’s ingrained Midwestern sense of propriety, Ellenstein drew a parallel between the sexual yearning Inge portrays and today’s high teen pregnancy rates in conservative areas of the country. “The more repression there is, it just means you’re not allowed to show it on the surface,’’ he said. “Because of his homosexuality, he was keenly aware of what was not allowed.’’

Inge’s work frequently touches on the forbidden. As Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones observed in 2006, reviewing a production of “Bus Stop’’ on the night “Brokeback Mountain’’ racked up eight Oscar nominations, “smoldering sexual subtexts in rural locales are nothing new,’’ gay cowboys included.

Inge wrote that he intended “Bus Stop,’’ about a group of travelers stranded overnight at a Kansas cafe during a blizzard, “as a composite picture of varying kinds of love, ranging from the innocent to the depraved.’’ DuBois chose it for the Huntington during the depths of the recession, when the theater was experiencing layoffs and furloughs. He had, he explained, “this impulse, which I think a lot of people had, to sort of get back to fundamentals,’’ yet he wanted something more surprising than Williams or Eugene O’Neill.

Even DuBois wasn’t terribly familiar with Inge, never having programmed or directed his plays, which can differ markedly from their better-known film adaptations. (Inge did not write the screenplays for any of the Hollywood versions of his stage hits.) The 1956 movie of “Bus Stop’’ — which, like the stage and film productions of “Picnic,’’ was directed by Joshua Logan, with whom Inge had famously tangled — turned his delicately calibrated ensemble piece into a star vehicle for Monroe, in the process eliminating some characters and radically altering others.

It was the ensemble nature of “Bus Stop,’’ Inge’s longest-running Broadway play, that most intrigued Nicholas Martin, the former Huntington artistic director who has returned to direct it. “I think that he was like a poet of the ordinary, and gave to the Midwest what Williams gave to the South and what the New York playwrights gave to New York,’’ he told his cast and creative team at the beginning of rehearsals.

Voss, Inge’s biographer, calls the characters who populate his plays “emotional isolates,’’ like their author, who underwent psychoanalysis for years and used his writing in part as a mode of working through his own emotional issues.

But his deep sympathy for each of those many characters, Ellenstein argued, is part of what sets Inge’s work apart. Almost no one in his plays is a villain.

“He asked the audience to become more human and more forgiving as human beings,’’ Ellenstein said. “In his trying to forgive himself, he was able to forgive everybody else in the world but himself.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

BUS STOP

Presented by Huntington Theatre Company at Boston University Theatre, through Oct. 17. Tickets: $25-$89, senior, student, and military discounts available. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org