by Chris Davis
Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful speaks to me in uncommonly personal ways. I know every one of those characters. I met them when I was a child, watching the little old tough-as-iron ladies living in an East Texas retirement community, as they planted plastic flowers in the sandy beds they’d cut into grey-brown lawns full of goat-heads and grass burrs, where no actual flowers would grow. My dad was born and raised in the Lone Star State, and when I was very young he told me the story about how his dad, my Papa Charlie, once threw a brick out of the window of his house with the pronouncement, “Wherever it lands, that’s where we’re going to bury you.” Out of context it sounds like a threat, but it’s more an expression of what it means to be a Texan. My grandparents moved from city to city and town until eventually, toward the end of their lives, they moved back to their tiny hometown. I imagined all sorts of exotic reasons for the frequent changes of address, but when I finally asked the real answer was so simple and so obvious: “It’s just too beautiful a state to stay in any one place for very long.”
Clearly The Trip to Bountiful, currently on stage at TheatreWorks, has spoken to a diverse audience since it arrived as an NBC TV drama some 61-years ago. But I swear, you need a little Texas in your blood to really get it.
Bountiful is a small play with epic intentions. It’s the “there and back again” story of Carrie Watts, an elderly woman living in Houston with her struggling son and his prattling wife. She burns with the Salmon-like need to return to Bountiful, TX , her hometown, just one last time before she dies, to see her old house on the banks of the Brazos river, smell the brackish Gulf air, and listen to the sound of the mockingbirds. But being a prisoner in her son’s home (for “her own good” of course), she has to sneak out and go on the lam. The play’s drama is provided by the ensuing chase, combined with an unusual look at the usual perils encountered by a “babe in the woods.” The rest is a personality study, and a meditation on changes in life and the American landscape, and all the things we lose along the way.
The supporting cast of characters are relatively benign creations, although it’s easy to imagine most of them as the same people you’ll meet in a Jim Thompson noir on the rare day when they aren’t feeling malicious.
New Moon was established as a company on a mission to produce difficult, sometimes anti-commercial work, but has evolved considerably, building a strong, well-deserved reputation as an actor’s showcase, and working with more audience-friendly material like Death of a Salesman, Vanities, and now The Trip to Bountiful.
Sylvia Barringer Wilson makes Carrie a soft-spoken spitfire, and the play is at its best when she leads the audience to wonder if Bountiful is a real place, or an invention of subtle dementia. She may even be a little too soft-spoken at times, in a nearly cinematic performance that’s done no favors by a lighting design de-emphasizing the intimacy of TheatreWorks.
Tracie Hansom makes a convincing bully of Carrie’s Coke-swilling, glamor-minded, gospel music-hating daughter-in-law Jessie Mae, and one almost longs for the moment when Carrie’s son Ludie, ably played by Joshua Quinn, snaps like the henpecked Gooper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and tells Jessie Mae to lay off his Mom. That never quite happens. Even though Ludie tries to establish some ground rules, we leave the theater knowing that he’s not very effective, and not much has changed.
Gene Elliott and Emily Marie Burnett are especially good as the fresh-faced newlywed Carrie meets on the train that takes her closest to Bountiful, and the small town Sheriff who does a good turn.
The minimal scenic design effectively places the action between rows of telephone poles. An even more forced perspective might have made TheatreWork’s wide, shallow playing area seem more compact, as would a lighting design that emphasized people over space.
Don’t be mislead by any negative tone you may perceive in this review. I wasn’t knocked out by the production, but I was often engaged. And like I said before, I feel like I know these people. Like they could be family. And I would have preferred to spend the evening with them instead of watching them close up, but at a distance.
The Trip to Bountiful is at TheatreWorks through April 13. For more information, click here.