Theater Review: ‘The Trip to Bountiful’

A journey that must be taken
May 14, 2013 Last Updated: May 14, 2013

NEW YORK—You can go home again, though things may not be the same as you remember. Horton Foote eloquently lays out this theme in his touching and bittersweet work “The Trip to Bountiful,” now being given a Broadway revival that should not be missed.

Carrie Watts (Cicely Tyson) is an elderly and unhappy woman in 1953 Houston, Texas. A longtime widow, she spends her days staring out the window of the apartment she shares with son Ludie (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and her sometimes shrew of a daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams).

Jessie Mae and Carrie don’t often see eye to eye, but since she and Ludie are dependent on Carrie’s pension checks to make ends meet, an uneasy truce exists between them.

Carrie longs to return to her hometown of Bountiful, Texas, a rural community she left more than 20 years earlier when work became scarce, and she was forced to move elsewhere to find a job and take care of her family. However, Carrie is now far too old to make the trip back home, or so Ludie contends, and Jessie Mae refuses to allow.

Yet Carrie will not be denied, and after lulling Ludie and Jessie Mae into a false sense of security with half-hearted promises and a delicious bit of deceit, she sneaks away and hops a Greyhound bus for her long-anticipated journey.

When Jessie Mae finds out, she threatens to get the police involved unless Ludie tracks down his mother immediately.

A tale of generational priorities in a changing world, the play turns on the character of Carrie. If you don’t connect with her emotionally, the entire premise falls apart.

Thankfully that is not the case here with Tyson giving a simply superlative performance of a woman with more fight and energy than someone less than half her age.

It’s through Tyson that the story conjures up images of a place shrouded in memory: a place where the world moves a little less quickly, and where one can find an open sky, brilliant sunsets, endless fields of grass, and carpets of stars overhead.

Despite the seriousness of the central story, Tyson also manages to inject a substantial amount of humor into her character. She plays Carrie with a combination of determination, resignation, dignity, and impishness as she keeps Ludie and Jessie Mae in the dark about her plans, while always managing to remain one step ahead of them whenever they do think they’ve figured out what she’s up to.

Williams gives a nicely nuanced performance as Jessie Mae, someone not so much evil as controlling. She has her own set of priorities as to how her home should be run. Jessie Mae is also terribly loyal to Ludie, loving him dearly and having stuck with him through the couple’s various trials.

Gooding does a fine job with Ludie, the most constricted of the three leads. He is caught between the two women in his life and trying to be a sort of peacemaker in an endlessly tense situation.

Yet he’s also the most multilayered character in the piece. A hardworking man who has no time for the past, Ludie remembers Bountiful and what it represents, but continually denies its significance as it evokes memories too painful to recall.

The supporting cast members play their various roles perfectly. Condola Rashad is fine as Thelma, a young woman whom Carrie meets on her journey, becoming both her traveling companion and partial conspirator.

Arthur French does a great turn as a bus station ticket clerk, and Tom Wopat is perfect in the pivotal role of the Sheriff in the town where Carrie stops before her final destination.

Tying everything together is Michael Wilson’s flawless direction. He guides the proceedings with a gentle but determined hand, never letting the story or characters become mawkish, tired, or move into sitcom territory. The audience feels they are always right in the middle of unfolding events.

There is also no feeling of this story being a period piece; the entire work seems fresh, alive, and immediate.

Special mention must go to the brilliant lighting work by Rui Rita, who presents a breathtaking effect during Carrie’s bus trip.

Jeff Cowie’s scenic work is also quite good—the bus itself is nicely done, and a sign in the Houston bus terminal offers a sobering reminder of attitudes at the time in which this story takes place.

Costumes by Van Broughton Ramsey are enjoyable with the clothes worn by Tyson especially well done.

Original music and sound design by the John Gromada was nicely suited to the story presented.

“The Trip to Bountiful” tells a tale where the journey is just as important as the destination. This particular trip is one on which everyone should immediately book tickets.

Also in the cast are Devon Abner, Curtis Billings, Pat Bowie, Leon Addison Brown, Susan Heyward, Bill Kux, Linda Powell, and Charles Turner.

“The Trip to Bountiful”
121 West 43rd Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Closes: Sept. 1

Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.