Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 23, 2013
The Trip to Bountiful by Horton Foote. Directed by Michael Wilson. Scenic design by Jeff Cowie. Costume design by Van Broughton Ramsey. Lighting design by Rui Rita. Original music and sound design by John Gromada. Hair design by Paul Huntley. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Cast: Cicely Tyson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Vanessa Williams, also starring Condola Rashad, and Tom Wopat, with Devon Abner, Curtis Billings, Arthur French, Pat Bowie, Leon Addison Brown, Susan Heyward, Bill Kux, Linda Powell, Charles Turner.
There may be some room for debate as to whether the true source of that fire is playwright Horton Foote, or Cicely Tyson, the actress who transforms Carrie into that beacon of realized hopes that pierces right through the darkness that so often is everyday life. Dare I submit that it doesn't matter who's responsible? So completely fused are the two souls, and for that matter every other element in Michael Wilson's seamless production, that it's impossible to discern where one ends and the next begins.
This is important to some degree in every play, but Foote's works demand an unusual dedication to, and understanding of, the spirit in which they were written. Foote, who died four years ago at age 92, devoted much of his 50-plus-year career to chronicling the vanishing Texas of his youth and exploring what that loss meant to the modern world. In doing so, he unlocked, time and time again, a unique theatrical spirit that captured both the sweetness and the sadness of an extinct world most of us today will never know or fully understand.
Tyson is a glimmering exception, embodying both qualities in nearly equal measure from the moments we first see Carrie confined in her son Ludie's cramped Houston home. (The lovingly dark, almost seedy, set design is by Jeff Cowie.) Though Tyson doesn't shirk from Carrie's advanced age, carrying herself with all the stiff reserve those years imply, she also effortlessly reveals the woman's mischievous — one might say sadistic — side by taking a sinful amount of pleasure in the exchanges she wins against her bossy daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams).
Their battles define the central conflict of The Trip to Bountiful and, in many ways, Foote's entire oeuvre. Carrie longs to retain her independence, in ways as small as minding her own pension checks and as large as returning to the hometown she left 20 years earlier, Bountiful, one last time before she dies. Jessie Mae, meanwhile, thinks Carrie needs to accept her limitations and show more respect for the feelings and home that she and Ludie (Cuba Gooding Jr.) have so graciously provided her.
What Tyson and Williams make clear here, in a way I've never encountered with this work before (even in the rapturously received 2005 Signature Theatre Company revival starring Lois Smith), is just how significant the Carrie–Jessie Mae relationship is. As portrayed by these actresses, the two women are exactly the same person, some 40 years apart, and equally unaccustomed to not getting her own way. In order for peace to coexist in the household that's constantly rocked by their bickering, each must both symbolically destroy and literally embrace the other, and it's the journey to that realization, more than to Bountiful itself, that is the most crucial core of the play.
By the time the women's final confrontation (and, for that matter, Ludie's own explosive attempt at peacemaking) occurs, every second of the play has been preparing you for it. Carrie's extant home life melting into the gateway bus station at which she meets Thelma, then the bus ride during which the two commune, a second station that presents a late and terrifying obstacle, and finally Carrie's own version of paradise shows you how anyone can grow at any age, and come to understand more about what in life is really important and why.
Tyson's discovery of this is as masterful as it is gradual, encompassing not just a speaking voice that gains in strength as scenes unfold but also that gripping luminescence that becomes increasingly blinding as Carrie approaches her destination. What is initially a tight, artificial smile slowly gives way to an expression of cheek-to-cheek rapture reflecting both the myth and the reality of her dreams. You may not agree with the conclusion she reaches, but the ecstasy Tyson displays makes Carrie's the more compelling argument.
There is, however, no performance that isn't compelling. Though Gooding, who won an Oscar in 1997 for the movie Jerry Maguire, has difficulty keeping up with his costars in the earlier and subtler scenes, he comes into his own just as Ludie is required to and ends with charm to spare. Williams is, as always, a fiery force of nature, projecting a deliriously sexy heat beneath Jessie Mae's cool exterior that never lets you question either the source of her confidence or the hold she exudes for Ludie. Rashad (Ruined) can and does stop the show with one precisely timed double-take, but is terrific throughout at balancing Thelma's own slow-breaking heart with what she derives from seeing Carrie pursue her fondest desire.
Wilson painstakingly maintains these feelings throughout, never rushing, and never letting the homepsun but expressive design (the lovely costumes are by Van Broughton Ramsey, the warmly enveloping lights by Rui Rita) overwhelm the work's humanity. But nowhere does he accomplish more than during the second bus station scene, when Carrie lets loose and begins singing a favorite hymn — a habit that riles Jessie Mae more than any other. Thelma is initially mortified, but then intrigued; before long, she's joining Carrie in musical praise, a tribute to God and Jesus, yes, but also a final reclamation of who they are and where they belong. It's this coming together that gives each of them the strength to make the final, most difficult legs of their journeys, now and for the rest of their lives.
So inspiring was this moment, in fact, that at the performance I attended, huge sections of the audience — despite no urging from anyone onstage — insisted on singing along. At most shows that's when audience and actors would become one. But there's never a moment in this superb revival that that's not the case. We're forever reminded of the struggles we all face, with our families and with ourselves, as we strive to learn where we most belong and who we most need to be. At driving this home, with laughter and tears challenging anything yet seen this season, there can be no doubt that this Trip to Bountiful is bountiful indeed.