The Trip to Bountiful
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 3, 2005
Signature Theatre Company has mounted a lovely, immensely satisfying, and (as far as I can tell) just about flawless revival of Horton Foote's play The Trip to Bountiful. Everything about the production, from the nuanced performances to the sensitive (but not sentimental) direction to the superbly evocative design bespeaks great care, respect, and attention for a play that most of us aren't too familiar with. At $15 apiece (as they are priced through the beginning of January), tickets for Bountiful are indisputably one of the great bargains in NYC theatre.
The play, which was written in 1953, tells the story of Mrs. Carrie Watts, a widow living with her son, Ludie, and his wife, Jessie Mae, in their cramped three-bedroom apartment in Houston. Ludie, employed in some nameless office job, is just getting by: the combination of a recent illness that kept him out of work for two years and his own listless lack of ambition/suitability for desk work have made him less of a success than he or his relatives had hoped for. Jessie Mae doesn't work; doesn't do much of anything, actually, except flit around their tiny home, hovering over her mother-in-law, who cooks and does most of the household chores. The two women do not get along: specifically, Jessie Mae abhors Carrie's hymn-singing (which is the devout Mrs. Watts's one great solace in life), her running around when walking would do, and her "pouting," which really amounts to tuning out Jessie Mae's nagging.
Of greater concern is Mrs. Watts's propensity for running away from home. Feeling pretty much imprisoned in the claustrophobic apartment, Carrie longs for the pastoral environment of her youth, in her hometown of Bountiful, about three hours away by car but—under the present circumstances—as distant as the moon. Nevertheless, every so often Mrs. Watts takes it into her head to try to make her way back to Bountiful. Ludie and Jessie Mae have always caught up with her at the train station, but this time, she decides to take the bus. She's able to elude her son and daughter-in-law at the Houston bus station, and before long she is at long last on her way, heading to Bountiful after two decades away.
The play, with deft economy, charts the situation, the trip, and what happens when Mrs. Watts get there. I hate to spoil things by giving away the details, so suffice to say that on the way to Bountiful, Mrs. Watts meets up with a very kind-hearted and polite young woman named Thelma who offers a good deal of support and company on her journey; and that when she finally arrives at the Harrison bus station (for no buses go in to Bountiful anymore, the town having receded in size since Carrie's time there), the adventure is only just beginning for Mrs. Watts. In the end, it starts to look like Wolfe was right, you can't go home again; and then it appears that perhaps you can—indeed, perhaps you must. This quixotic trip supplies something like the life force for both Carrie and her son: the cure, when you lose your way, is to remember where you came from.
What's beautiful about Foote's writing is the careful layering of details to reveal, oh so eloquently, a character and a way of life that is quintessentially American. Almost in passing, we're called upon to consider the tragic consequences of urbanization to an agrarian people; the uselessness that comes with leisure, privilege, and boredom; the congenial but ultimately entirely detached attitude of a populace whose twin credos are to Love Thy Neighbor and to Mind Their Own Business.
The details of the play's time, place, and mores are artfully evoked by Martin Pakledinaz's always-on-target costumes, E. David Cosier's naturalistic sets, and John McKernon's similarly realistic lighting. Under Harris Yulin's excellent direction, the entire ensemble feels spot-on, from the roughhewn, plain-spoken station agents of Frank Girardeau, Gene Jones, and Sam Kitchin to the weathered, reticent Sheriff of Jim Demarse to the helpful but reserved Thelma of Meghan Andrews. In the three principal roles, Lois Smith (Mrs. Watts), Devon Abner (Ludie), and Hallie Foote (Jessie Mae) do splendid work, showing us the complexities of these characters with conviction and depth. Smith anchors her portrayal with tenacity, resourceful, and strength; the luxuries of emotions like love and warmth only emerge sparingly, as in the gorgeous final scene when she has a climactic and cathartic talk with her son. Abner builds Ludie's character slowly and steadily, blossoming at last in that same final scene. Foote, the playwright's daughter and interpreter non pareil, gets right to the heart of Jessie Mae, letting us see the good as well as the shallow foolishness of this well-meaning but mostly empty woman.
It is, in sum, about as perfect a production as one could wish for; kudos to everyone involved for bringing Foote's play—surprisingly sturdy and resonant despite its intimacy and specificity—to such vivid life for contemporary audiences. In this Signature production, The Trip to Bountiful proves as fertile, generous, and lush a theatrical experience as its title promises.