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One of the most moving roles in 20th century American drama for an actress in her senior years, Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful has been an acclaimed late-career vehicle – television, movies and stage – for Lillian Gish, Geraldine Page and Lois Smith. Horton Foote’s exquisite 1953 play also serves the estimable Cicely Tyson admirably, and vice versa, even if Michael Wilson’s comfort-food Broadway revival seldom matches her level.
The production, which co-stars Cuba Gooding Jr. and Vanessa Wiliams, follows recent Tennessee Williams makeovers that cast black actors in roles written and traditionally performed as white. Foote’s play might actually be a more rewarding fit for that racial rethink, and not only because it lured Tyson back to Broadway after a three-decade absence. (The veteran actress declines to confirm her age; most sources have her turning 80 at the end of this year, but The New York Times states with authority that she’s 88.)
Living in a cramped apartment with her fretful son Ludie (Gooding) and his self-centered wife Jessie Mae (Williams), the long-widowed Mother Watts is desperate to leave Houston and return to the beloved Gulf Coast home she hasn’t seen in 20 years. Making her a black woman in segregated early-‘50s Texas adds another veil of melancholy to this tale of yearning. Likewise her virtual enslavement by Jessie Mae when one stops to consider that Carrie surely grew up in a family whose memories stretched back to Confederacy days.
That association is deepened by Tyson’s own prominent place in popular-entertainment depictions of the black American experience – cemented via such milestone TV dramas as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Roots, and more recently, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and the film The Help.
Her performance as Mrs. Watts is as remarkable for its spry, shuffling energy and wiliness as for its warmth and emotional transparency. The latter qualities are particularly apparent during the play’s gorgeous midsection, in which she befriends a sweet young soldier’s wife (the luminous Condola Rashad) during her fugitive bus journey. Tyson’s ability to convey stubborn resilience in the face of defeat is profoundly touching, as is the way her natural soulfulness surfaces by degrees the closer Carrie gets to her destination.
But the production’s tone is inconsistent, too often sacrificing truthful poignancy in favor of jaunty humor and manufactured sentiment. Instead of a quiet elegy that can cut deep with its sense of reaching for a past that exists now only in the imagination, it has become a heartwarming dramedy (a word I hate) of a kind regularly found on basic cable. It’s still perfectly entertaining, just a long way from being all that this play can be. The disappointment will be felt most acutely by anyone who saw Harris Yulin’s expertly calibrated 2005 off-Broadway staging, which deservingly won Smith pretty much every award for which she was eligible.
One basic problem is the venue. This is an intimate drama, as delicate as the caress of a gentle breeze, and it feels depersonalized, even coarsened in such a large, modern auditorium. Wilson has demonstrated an expert touch with Foote’s work in the past, notably with Dividing the Estate and the epic Orphans’ Home Cycle. Here he pushes harder, especially in the establishing scenes in Houston.
Gooding’s lack of stage experience initially shows in the effort he puts into being a folksy man torn between filial love for his mother and the desire to keep the peace between her and his controlling, petulant wife. But he mellows into the role as the action progresses. It’s apparent that Ludie understands and to some extent shares his mother’s discomfort with city life. But unlike her romanticized feelings for their remote homeplace, he sees it with the painful sting of reality.
Williams is a mixed blessing. She’s a delight to watch and looks sensational in Van Broughton Ramsey’s period costumes. But she’s been directed to play for laughs in what essentially is not a comedy. Mother Watts talks more than once about the health benefits of never worrying, pointing out that Jessie Mae has that gift. And in Williams’ characterization, she is a vain, diplomacy-free woman who never met a problem that couldn’t be solved by sipping a cool Coca-Cola at the beauty parlor.
Does she love Ludie? She probably never even considered the question because that would require her to think beyond herself. Jessie Mae makes no attempt to hide her impatience with Mother Watts, barely masking it as exasperated concern, or her grabby landlady attitude to the old woman’s pension check. She blithely steps aside and allows her mother-in-law to shoulder the housework, but this comes off more like indifference than exploitation.
Much of this is funny stuff, and the audience laps it up, clucking with amused disapproval every time Jessie Mae makes another tactless remark. But Foote didn’t write it as a sitcom.
Tyson’s minor-key scenes with Rashad feel truer to the intrinsic nature of the play. The tender rapport that develops between their characters – that of a mother and the daughter she would have wanted; a scared young wife and a woman with experience and wisdom to share; a frail old lady and a considerate stranger – illustrates the infinite nuances of compassion that distinguish Foote’s best writing. In the later scenes, Tom Wopat does fine work as a small-town sheriff balancing stern professional responsibility with kindness. And Arthur French, a lovely actor to be cherished in any cast, sparkles as a bus-station ticket agent, an old-timer joyously infected by Carrie’s nostalgia for bygone days.
Jeff Cowie’s set makes nice use of quaint painted front- and backcloths. When we finally get to Bountiful, he creates a picture of the Watts family homestead that’s both mournful and beautiful. But the key scene of Carrie and her traveling companion’s journey, while played with conviction, has to contend with hideous design choices. Cowie’s back-of-the-bus dissection and lighting designer Rui Rita’s engulfing starry night sky are cheesy in the extreme. That visual typifies an overall lack of subtlety that continually collides with the elegant simplicity of Foote’s words in a production saved chiefly by Tyson’s ennobling presence.
Venue: Stephen Sondheim Theatre, New York (runs through Oct. 9)
Cast: Cicely Tyson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Vanessa Williams, Condola Rashad, Tom Wopat, Devon Abner, Curtis Billings, Arthur French, Pat Bowie, Leon Addison Brown, Susan Heyward, Linda Powell, Charles Turner
Director: Michael Wilson
Playwright: Horton Foote
Set designer: Jeff Cowie
Costume designer: Van Broughton Ramsey
Lighting designer: Rui Rita
Music & sound designer: John Gromada
Presented by Nelle Nugent, Kevin Liles, Paula Marie Black, David R. Weinreb, Stephen C. Byrd, Alan M. Jones, Kenneth Teaton, Carole L. Haber/Philip Geier, Wendy Federman/Carl Moellenberg/Ricardo Hornos, Fifty Church Street Productions/Hallie Foote/Tyson and Kimberly Chandler
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