A trip to the theatre may not feel like a trip to the bountiful for some, but the production of Horton Foote’s play by the same name is certainly a bounty of pleasure. Currently in performances at the Stephen Sondheim Theater, this play, directed by Michael Wilson, offers up a bounty of emotion, both joyful and bittersweet.
The Trip to Bountiful introduces us to the Watts family, where the matriarch, Carrie (played by Cicely Tyson in an outstanding performance) suffers from a failing heart. She lives with her son Ludie (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his wife Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams), and mother-in-law and daughter clash like oil and water. Ludie is recovering from a two-year illness that left him unemployed, and he and Jessie Mae rely on Carrie’s pension checks to make ends meet.
Carrie, on the other hand, is more interested, obsessed, even, with returning to her hometown, Bountiful. And she eventually makes her escape, uncashed pension check in hand, hobbling heroically across the stage with an almost child-like glee. On her trip there, she meets a young army bride named Thelma (Condola Rashad) and faces an adventure or two before seeing her old home for the last time.
The Trip to Bountiful is a bittersweet play (as are many of Foote’s works) that, while focusing on a simple story or conflict, highlights the bigger picture of social or societal norms that require examining. And while the play addresses the issues of aging, of urban development and of economic struggles, The Trip to Bountiful also highlights the placement of women in the culture of that time – which was always surrounding and focused on men. Carrie is a widow, so she lives with her son. During her bus ride, she confides in Thelma that she never loved her husband; instead she loved another man but was not permitted to marry him because their father’s did not get along. She says this so calmly and matter-of-factly it takes a moment for the words to register, but when they do, the grief and pain underneath is quite visible.
Jessie Mae and Ludie are childless, and she is is restless and bored during the day while her husband is at work, so she meets her friends to drink Coca Colas at the drug store and talk about other people’s husbands and children. Thelma’s husband is at war and it is unthinkable for her to consider living alone, so returns to her family’s home. And while it is Carrie who escapes to return to Bountiful, it is two men a kindly bus station attendant (Devon Abner) and a sheriff (a robust Tom Wopat) who actually get her there.
Despite the patriarchal restrictions of society on women, it is clear by the end of The Trip to Bountiful that Carrie is no one’s prisoner. The joy and vigor that seeing her hometown provide her refresh her spirit of life – and her peace with it coming to an end. As Carrie, Tyson gives a performance of such compassion, grace and strength that, when she burst into song (a joyous hymn) the audience immediately began clapping along. She portrays how society had held her back and caged her in and how returning to her home of her own free will helped her regain her dignity and strength.
I was especially impressed by Williams’ performance as Jessie Mae, the restless housewife. While Jessie Mae could have easily been played as shrewd and heartless, Williams communicates how her character wants more from life and doesn’t know how to obtain it. Rather than watching Carrie and Jessie Mae clash and immediately taking a side, I found myself torn between the two women. Life wasn’t giving either of them what they really deserved.
Cuba Gooding Jr. is a bit too placid as Ludie, but, given the strength of the women surrounding him, it is almost understandable how he fell into the role of peacemaker. When he finally does stand up to Jessie Mae, at the pay’s conclusion, the audience burst into applause.
As Thelma, the young and kind-hearted war bride, Rashad gives a one-note performance. The part doesn’t give her much to work with, but I expected more spunk from the woman who had so impressed me with her performance in Stick Fly.
The Trip to Bountiful is beautifully rendered, with Jeff Cowie’s sets and Rui Rita’s lighting emphasizing the claustrophobic atmosphere of the apartment the three family members share as well as the open-air spaciousness of Bountiful. But no matter how lovely the sets, it’s hard to look at anything else when Tyson is onstage. She is the brightest light in this production by far.