Get ready Blount County, a snowstorm is coming, and with it, a cast of characters you won’t want to miss.
Foothills Community Players opens their fourth season with “Bus Stop,” a play by William Inge set in the mid-1950s. It revolves around a Mid-West diner where a bus carrying passengers is stranded during the middle of a raging snowstorm. The café owner is sweet on the bus driver. The spirited young cowpoke wants to drag the lounge singer to his home in Montana. The lecherous professor, who enjoys tipping back whiskey, has his eye on the naïve waitress. And they all have to survive the night together while learning something about each other and themselves, along with a few life lessons.
“Bus Stop” will arrive on Thursday, Sept. 29, at the Capital Theatre in downtown Maryville.
Nicci Williamson, marking her third directorial return to FCP, is excited to be at the helm of a play she has long loved and thinks people here in this community can relate to the story, setting and characters.
“When I read it (the play), I was seeing this place in Walland,” Williamson said. The diner in Bus Stop has that same down-home feel to it.
The play is populated by characters who have established relationships and the newcomers who arrive via the bus, and they all have their quirks, she said.
“It’s a wide cast of characters,” Williamson said. “All the characters are so real.”
What gives them such depth is that they all have virtues, but they are also flawed individuals, she said. The story is layered with plots and subplots, allowing the audience to see a slice of life and how people interact with one another.
Stage Manager David Ratliff said as the play opens, the characters seem over the top, but then their humanity emerges as they learn lessons of life and face new experiences. The play is a drama with comedy and romance intertwined throughout, he said.
Ratliff wasn’t totally sold on this play at first, but said as he’s watched it unfold under Williamson’s vision and direction, it has come alive for him.
Directing this play is a plum assignment for Williamson, who has wanted to bring it to the stage for some time. She was first introduced to the story through the movie version starring Marilyn Monroe.
“I am a huge Marilyn Monroe fan to start with,” she said. After seeing the movie, she read the play and realized how much richer it was. The movie left out a couple of the most interesting characters, she added.
Williamson, a Maryville College graduate, said she considered using the play as a basis for her thesis but because of construction on the Clayton Center for the Arts, she didn’t have a good choice for staging.
For this production, the cast of actors has brought their own mix of experiences and backgrounds that interface with the play and each other. Veteran actors Keith McDaniel of Oak Ridge (Dr. Gerald Lyman, the professor) and Donna Pearson of Sevierville (café owner Grace Hoyland) both have had to travel some distance for rehearsals and have added a regional flavor to the production. Blount County residents Tom McCroskey (Sheriff Will Masters) and Gary Cooper (Carl, the bus driver) make their acting debuts in Bus Stop. The cast is rounded out by Danielle Pressley (Elma Duckworth), Shea Holcombe as Cherie, Jim Hartley as Virgil Blessing and Seth Crowe (Bo Decker).
Ratliff said it was great to watch veteran performers work with newer actors because there is an exchange on both ends. The newer actors learn from their more experienced counterparts while the veterans tap into the energy and fresh perspectives of those new to performaning.
Neither Cooper nor McCroskey have any acting experience to speak of.
Cooper said he’s enjoyed creating his character of Carl, the bus driver, who takes advantage of the snowstorm to pursue the café owner and who sees himself as a charmer.
“That’s the way I’m playing the character - a guy who thinks he’s cooler than he is. Who thinks he’s a lady’s man,” Cooper said.
Cooper had been photographing publicity shots for the theatre company for the last year or so and has volunteered in other ways. When this role came up, he decided to audition.
“I like things from that time period and being ‘Gary Cooper’ and all,” he explained with a laugh. “Carl was a character that I thought sounded cool. It’s been a little nerve wracking, but it’s also been fun.”
McCroskey, who has served on the FCP board for more than three years, said someone suggested he audition, and so he did. Learning lines and stage direction has taken him out of his comfort zone, but McCroskey enjoys the opportunity for discovering new things. He said he has surprised himself in undertaking this role, and he’s developed a new respect for actors who do this on a regular basis.
A production of this size takes the efforts of at least 40 people handling the many details - from stage design to props to makeup and wardrobe to scheduling - required to make a quality performance, Ratliff said, adding that this experience has been particularly smooth in bringing all the pieces together.
“It’s a lot of work to make it like that,” he said. “I’m excited about the show.”
The play runs from Sept. 29 through Oct. 1. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the curtain goes up at 7:30 p.m. with additional performances at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets may be purchased by calling 865-712-6428 or by ordering online at www.foothillscommunityplayers.com. Tickets are $17 for adults and $15 for seniors and students. Parties of 20 or more may call for group rates. For more information, visit the FCP’s website.