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The Trip to Bountiful

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Not all journeys are easily defined by the lines on a map or a friendly stranger's direction. Your destination might no longer exist. Or, worse, it might never have existed in the first place, at least not the way you remember it. But the odd thing about the human memory - that glittering, ghostly place where the heart and mind intersect - is that the smallest of details often don't matter at all.

They certainly don't in The Trip to Bountiful, the elegant little Horton Foote play that relates the story of an elderly woman named Carrie Watts who's determined to return to her one-time home before she dies. But as Foote prescribes Carrie's journey, and as director Harris Yulin has lovingly interpreted it for the rich new Signature Theatre Company revival, the final outcome isn't what's important: Getting there isn't half the fun, it's all that matters.

Carrie's trip is nothing if not fraught with dangers. Some present themselves as people, such as Carrie's meddlesome, antagonistic daughter-in-law. Others are Earthly concerns, such as the misplacing of a pocketbook or the encroaching forgetfulness of all her twilight years. Finally - these are the important ones - there are the forces of history that can never dent recollections, but can swallow whole towns and the hard-working, enterprising souls who once lived in them.

At the very least, they've rendered the Carrie of 1953 an artifact, a curiosity, even a burden to her son Ludie (Devon Abner) and his wife Jessie Mae (Hallie Foote). But not wanting to be put out to pasture - or, worse, locked in a museum - Carrie's intent on remaining a fighter to the very end. She's not above lying and sneaking her way out of Ludie and Jessie Mae's Houston home and onto the road to Bountiful, where she plans to recover the life she was ripped from some two decades ago.

This longing for the unattainable - or attaining the unrecognizable - is a permanent fixture in Foote's plays, which document the evolution of the American animal no less than they chronicle the vanishing rurality of the United States. And Carrie has long been one of Foote's most potent torch-bearers, an empathetic symbol of loss and hope in a world where they're becoming increasingly intertwined.

Conveying all this is no problem for Smith, who presents Carrie as equally wary and weary, a one-time schemer who no longer possesses quite the sharpness she once did. Smith's Carrie plans to come out on top whenever she tilts with Jessie Mae over matters as minute as a misplaced recipe or pension check, and you can feel her heart breaking more with each successive failure. And Smith spares no excess of maternal pride when on a bus she meets a young woman named Thelma (Meghan Andrews) who brings out the best in her that Jessie Mae and Ludie have no qualms squandering.

Playing Carrie this grounded in reality allows Smith to develop intensely intricate interpersonal relationships that build up not only Jessie Mae, Ludie, and Thelma, but even a bus station ticket seller or a concerned sheriff into key players in her drama. What Smith sacrifices is the dream, which should sparkle like flecks of dust in a beam of sunlight but seems here like just a barely perceptible shadow. The Bountiful for which she's so fervently searching forever remains mysterious, but every word she utters about the Bountiful that was springs piercingly to life.

At least that helps make it a real place for us, even if we can't get lost in the fantasy as fully as she does, or as completely as we ought to. The other performers - particularly Foote, a nervy miracle as the frustrated and impatient Jessie Mae - warmly populate the Texas landscape, which is ideally accented by David Cosier's homespun sets, Martin Pakledinaz's efficient costumes, and John McKernon's Sunday-morning lights. And it's all brought to calm, methodical life by Yulin's direction, which effortlessly establishes the hum-drum world of dreams deferred in which everyone lives.

But you do wish for a Carrie who better captures the anguish of living in that world, someone more along the lines of Lillian Gish (the role's originator, on TV and on Broadway) or Geraldine Page (who won an Oscar for her work in the 1985 film version) to link the troublesome present with the golden past. Still, when Smith recounts the one true love of her life (not the man she married), with a barely trembling face and words soaked in a heady mixture of regret and acceptance, it's difficult to feel you're missing out on much.

Overall, her performance alone is well worth the standard Off-Broadway ticket price, but Signature doesn't even require that: It's celebrating its 15th-anniversary season with all tickets to all performances priced at $15. You can't beat this deal - it ensures that a production already well worth everyone's time is also well within everyone's means.

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The Trip to Bountiful

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes, with no intermission
Signature Theatre Company's Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street between 10th & 11th Avenue
For subscription and ticket information, please call (212) 244-PLAY (7529).