The Trip to Bountiful
Living in an overcrowded three-room Houston apartment with her dutiful, yet melancholy son Ludie (Underwood) and his brittle, bossy wife Jessie Mae (Williams), elderly and frail Carrie longs to visit her childhood home in the small Texas town of Bountiful before she dies. Forced to leave the land where she grew up twenty years ago, her powerful memories sustain her as she dreams of making the trip back to reclaim her dignity and strength. Closely monitored by Jessie Mae, who doesn't trust her as far as she can throw her, when her daughter-in-law goes to meet a friend for a Coke, Carrie takes advantage of her absence to grab her ready, packed suitcase and the pension check she has tucked away and high tails it to the Greyhound station.
Despite her frailty and against the prohibitions of Ludie and Jessie Mae, Carrie is determined and fearless as she sets out on her journey. Foote describes the character as a woman of sixty, and the two notable actresses who played the part in earlier renditionsLillian Gish on stage and Geraldine Page in the filmwere sixty and sixty-one respectively. That Tyson is an octogenarian gives her quest greater urgency and she makes it feel more poignant with every fiber of her being. She needs to get out of that apartment where her loving son is paternalistic toward her and her resentful daughter-in-law berates her as if she were a recalcitrant child. With slumping shoulders and drooping head, Carrie's body language reflects how she feels when Jessie Mae lays into her, but her posture is erect once she is out on her own.
At the bus station, Carrie connects with Thelma (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a young woman en route to stay with her parents while her military husband is overseas. The bond between these two strangers is in stark contrast to the highly charged relationship between Carrie and Jessie Mae, and Smollett-Bell gives an engaging, heartfelt performance that exudes openness and genuine caring. Williams is relentless playing the self-centered Jessie Mae who rarely softens, and when she does, she is quick to get back in character where it's all about her. She shows touches of affection to Ludie and lets herself be vulnerable when they have a brief conversation about being childless, but she is the take charge person in their marriage.
Ludie is a product of his time, the '50s guy who has his pride and needs to take care of his family. However, he is caught in the middle between his mother and his wife and is insecure as he tries to get back on his feet after two years out of work. Underwood meets the challenge of balancing the various aspects of Ludie's personality in an understated way, utilizing eye rolls and exhalations to show the character's frustrations, and his struggles play out on his face. He lets us see that, even with his own worries and woes, Ludie loves Jessie Mae and feels tenderness toward Carrie. There is a high level of authenticity in the family scenes with the three lead actors.
The Trip to Bountiful was originally written for and performed by white actors, but the story is universal and feels completely natural with people of color in the roles. When Tyson breaks out singing the gospel hymns that pepper Foote's script, her joy is infectious and from the heart, perhaps grounded in her upbringing by religious parents. Although no direct mention is made of the Jim Crow laws in effect at the time, the production gives subtle nods to the racial climate. A sign in the bus station points to the whites only waiting room, and Carrie and Thelma are shown riding in the back of the bus. However, the white ticket agents and the Sheriff (Devon Abner) behave professionally and are respectful to all of the travelers of both races.
Jeff Cowie's scenic design is most effective, conveying the claustrophobic feeling of the cramped Houston apartment. The side-by-side placement of the rooms allows us to observe Ludie and Jessie Mae talking in the living room at the same time as Carrie comically rifles through the drawers in their bedroom. A backdrop with a wall of windows rises above their place, with lights coming on to indicate the neighbors they've disturbed in the middle of the night. Set pieces and benches slide on and off to create the Houston bus station and the rural depot where Thelma and Carrie disembark from the cleverly designed cutaway segment of a bus. The ramshackle Bountiful house is partially boarded up and draped with vines, and sits adjacent to an overgrown field with a backdrop of blue sky with pink highlights. Even in its state of disrepair, the location conveys the peace, tranquility, and beauty that Carrie recalls.
Rui Rita (lighting design) and John Gromada (original music and sound design) complement the settings with their work. Rita employs a variety of low wattage fixtures in the apartment, brighter lighting in the bus station, passing headlights outside the bus, and an aura of a new day dawning in the scene in Bountiful. The sounds of screeching tires outside the apartment, popular songs of the era on the radio, and distant train whistles and barking dogs are heard in the first act, while Carrie delights in hearing different species of birds when she's at the old house. Van Broughton Ramsey's costume designs include stylish creations for Williams and Smollett-Bell, a simple dress for Tyson, and an appropriate three-piece suit for Underwood.
Director Michael Wilson has a long history of collaborating with Foote and directed the Broadway revival, the recent Los Angeles engagement of the play, and the 2014 Emmy nominated television movie of The Trip to Bountiful. Reunited with most of the designers and several key cast members, he brings the humor and humanity of the beloved story to the Boston stage in an affecting, memorable production. It is his responsibility to make sure that all of the moving parts of the vehicle are in superb working order and ready for the journey. Once the curtain rises, he knows that we will be transported by Ms. Cicely Tyson.
The Trip to Bountiful, performances through December 7, 2014, presented by ArtsEmerson: The World On Stage at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-824-8400 or www.artsemerson.org.
Written by Horton Foote, Directed by Michael Wilson; Scenic Design, Jeff Cowie; Costume Design, Van Broughton Ramsey; Lighting Design, Rui Rita; Original Music and Sound Design, John Gromada; Production Stage Manager, Robert Bennett; Stage Manager, Jereme Kyle Lewis
Cast (in order of appearance): Cicely Tyson, Vanessa Williams, Blair Underwood, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Devon Abner, Wade Dooley, Arthur French, Pat Bowie, Russell Edge, Dalila Ali Rajah, Keiana Richard, Duane Shepard, Sr., Desean Kevin Terry