By Perry Tannenbaum
Now nearly qualifying for senior citizenship, Horton Foote‘s quirky 1953 idyll, The Trip to Bountiful has always been a delicate little shrub. Imprisoned in a three-room Houston apartment, where she’s watched over by her sickly weak-willed son Ludie and her temperamental daughter-in-law Jessie Mae, Carrie Watts yearns to revisit her ancestral home in Bountiful, Texas, just a short liberating bus ride away. Stymied in previous attempts to fly the coop by train, the pensioner’s dearest wish is finally achieved, largely through the kindness of strangers – who perceive virtues in Carrie that her family has grown blind to.
It’s a rather bland tale that challenges a director to perk up the drama, which threatens to vanish once we must pull away from the close-ups on Carrie that TV and movies so readily provide. In the current CPCC Theatre production at Pease Auditorium, Charles LaBorde has a more satisfying way with the script than Michael Wilson did in the recent Broadway revival.
Casting is crucially important, for both of the Watts women’s roles are tasty. It was Jo Van Fleet who won the first Bountiful Tony Award as Jessie Mae. But the lead role has long since asserted trophy dominance, with Geraldine Page taking the Oscar for the 1985 film adaptation, Lois Smith taking multiple awards in the 2005 off-Broadway revival, and – inexplicably to me, since I witnessed her performance – Cicely Tyson winning the Tony when Bountiful returned to Broadway in 2013.
Corlis Hayes gives us an autumnal Carrie, far more lively and likable than Tyson’s wintry rendition, which was chronically underpowered and often unintelligible. There is a beautiful distillation of frailty and determination from Hayes that continuously sparks this Carrie on the rocky road to her little victory, so we see more readily what the helpful strangers – a small-town sheriff and a fellow bus passenger – are finding so appealing.
Wilson’s idea of perking up Foote’s script called for turning Cuba Gooding Jr. as Ludie into a wheedling henpecked husband, yielding with barely a whimper to the beauty queen vanity and near-S&M tyranny of Vanessa Williams as Jessie Mae. Carrie and Ludie both seemed to be suffering under the same oppressive regime, except that Gooding seemed to be playing his subservience for laughs.
Jonavan Adams gives us a different kind of weakness. We not only get more of the sense that Ludie is still on the mend after a long convalescence, we also get the idea that his apparent weakness is less a fear or worship of his wife than his touchy walking-on-eggshells position as the eternal peacemaker between his warring wife and mother. Nor is Tracie Frank quite the implacable goddess that Williams made out of Jessie Mae. Frank is more petulant and resentful than domineering in asserting control over Ludie, and except for Jessie Mae’s insistence upon going to the beauty parlor weekly, she pretty much discards the Broadway vanity.
All of these adjustments make a significant difference after Carrie reaches her ruined ancestral home, both in the climactic confrontation between the two women and in the ultimate message of Carrie’s story. On Broadway, Carrie seemed to capitulate entirely to Jessie Mae, and when Jessie Mae made her concessions to Ludie afterwards, they seemed like crumbs she could afford to toss his way once she had triumphed.
Here there is a richer sense that Carrie has really gotten all she wanted and needed when she beheld her childhood home one last time. In this production, I can also believe her claim that she has no more reason to rebel against Jessie Mae. And when she sees her son making demands upon his wife, LaBorde and Adams craft a moment that reminds me of A Raisin in the Sun, when Lena sees her son coming into his manhood in the denouement.
So instead of the dark takeaway in the Broadway revival that intimated a parallel between the disintegration and extinction of small towns and the slow dying away of the good people who came out of that simple prairie life, we’re left with something far sunnier and personal. It’s an argument between Ludie and Carrie that’s decided in Mom’s favor: while it might be morbid to wallow in the past, it’s better to keep connecting with your past and your roots from time to time than to be eternally trying to deny and sever yourself from your heritage.
Supporting players radiate their sympathy toward Carrie without oozing it. Amy Wada as Thelma is Carrie’s first enabler when she meets her at the bus station attempting her getaway. Foote is resourceful in getting Thelma to warm to Carrie, sending Jessie Mae to the bus station hot on her prisoner’s heels, and it’s delightful to watch Wada picking up these cues and evolving Thelma’s attitude.
A couple of obstacles that Foote tosses in Carrie’s path after she boards the bus will make her more pitiful, yet there’s a nice restraint to the sympathy that she gets from Al England as Roy, the station manager, when she debarks in the middle of the night at the Harrison station – because the bus no longer stops at Bountiful. Contrasting with England’s cracker-barrel geniality is Tom Scott‘s crustiness as the Harrison sheriff, so when he yields to Carrie’s entreaties to take her the rest of the way to Bountiful, his softening is all the more affecting.
Of course, Scott has a lot more reason to be accommodating, for on the threshold of completing her journey, Hayes is far more willing to surrender her dignity and beg for the sheriff’s help than Tyson was. When it came down to that crucial moment, the Tony Award winner wasn’t willing to go that far, even if that was closer to where 1953 Texas truly was for an African American.
Spare and weathered, James Duke’s set design for Bountiful – nicely illuminated by Duke’s sunny lighting – is pure poetry compared to the bumper-car set pieces that cast and crew roll around the Pease stage as we journey from the Wattses’ apartment to the Houston bus station. Noticeably simpler, the Harrison depot strikes us as an apt halfway point in this retro TRIP.
Jamie Varnadore’s costume designs seem most dignified when we reach the old crumbling homestead, wordlessly making a point that the Broadway revival labored so hard at. That rickety porch and the home beyond it were places where we could be most human, most ourselves. We lose something of our essence cooped up in a tenement or herded together – and segregated – at a Greyhound terminal.