"The Trip To Bountiful"
Writer: Horton Foote
Director: Michael Wilson
Set, Jeff Cowie; Costumes, Van Broughton Ramsey; Lights, Rui Rita; Original music and sound design, John Gromada.
ArtsEmerson and Jonathan Reinis Productions in association with Center Theatre Group
November 20 - December 7, 2014
“The Trip To Bountiful” is as richly satisfying a theater experience as you’re likely to find in a long time. Everything works. The cast is loaded with talent from headliners to bit players. The sets, lighting, and music integrate seamlessly, each reflecting a facet of the drama unfolding in front of us. And the Cutler Majestic Theater, with its old time opulent arches, columns, frescoed ceilings and rich ruby color accents, is itself an unselfconscious setting for this warmly wrought drama.
The three main characters play off each other with the sense of familiarity that living together in a cramped two-room apartment can produce over a period of years. Mrs. Carrie Watts, “Mama Watts” (Cicely Tyson), is frail in body but with indomitable spirit forged from living her eighty some-odd years in the Deep South. She has the powerful desire to return before she dies to her childhood home in Bountiful, a fictitious Gulf Coast Texas town about a three hour drive from Houston, where she lives with her son Ludie (Blair Underwood) and his wife Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams). Her son and especially his high-strung wife rebuff her wishes, knowing that tiny, rural Bountiful has slipped into desolation after the Depression. They feel Mama Watts will be crushed to see the town’s demise and her now dilapidated home.
From left: Cicely Tyson, Blair Underwood, and Vanessa Williams, pictured in “The Trip to Bountiful” earlier this year in Los Angeles.Photo courtesy Craig Schwartz
Delicious sub plots abound. High-strung Jessie Mae balancing her need to use her mother in laws' monthly pension check to underwrite her weekly visits to the beauty parlor with Mama Watt’s habit of irritating her by singing hymns all day long. Ludie’s tentative plan to ask for a raise to better their living accommodations after eight years of being a loyal employee. Jessie Mae and Mama Watts are two pieces of work. Their jousts are epic and hilarious. Both stubborn, they know how to get on the other’s nerves - with Ludie, husband and son, trying gamely to occupy a neutral ground during their skirmishes.
The chemistry between actors is deeply convincing. After a few minutes, I began to feel more like a fly on the wall in the apartment than a theatergoer spectating from seat L3 in the orchestra section.
Cicely Tyson disappears here. What we see, from the play’s first minute in her rocking chair, is Mrs. Carrie Watts, Mama Watts. We can almost smell the sachet that probably scents her dresses and the aroma of the biscuits she invariably made this morning.
One thing is clear. Mama Watts is going to find a way to get to Bountiful. What’s not clear is how the hell can she pull it off. She’s too old to drive and hasn’t been out on her own for years. What transpires in the second act is the reason we go to the theater. We connect. We laugh. We cry. We cheer.
When the coast is clear one day, she makes a break for the bus station. Mama Watts’ chance meeting on a bus heading out of Houston (one of several beautiful sets by Jeff Cowie) with young newly-wed Thelma gives us Mama’s back story - her childhood memories of Bountiful, her parents relationship, the smell of the trees and songs of the birds, getting her hands dirty working the land, the closeness of family ties.
A scene when octogenarian Mama Watts creakily gets up from the bench in the “Colored” section of the bus station (a sharp reminder of America in the mid 1950s) 12 miles from Bountiful and has Thelma join her in a rowdy dance she remembers doing when she was a teenager ignited a spontaneous ovation. If they hadn’t already, everyone in the sold-out theater fell in love with this woman living her dream.
Against pretty steep odds, Mama Watts gets to visit her home in Bountiful before her son and daughter in law can catch up to her and thwart her plan. What happens there will break your heart, make you weep, and shout for joy, pretty much at the same time.
Written by Horton Foote, The Trip To Bountiful was first produced as a television play in 1953. Dated? Yes, but in a good way. The set features rotary phones, and wooden AM radios. Women wear 1950s dresses and hairstyles and men wear fedoras to work. But the human drama, the need for a sense of home and belonging, filled with love and hope no matter the financial status, is universal and drives the narrative.
Proof? Horton Foote’s original Watts family was white. Here, it works brilliantly with a black cast and holds the same wallop.
In its broadest sense, Bountiful is a parable. We all have a Bountiful, whether real or imagined, a place that centers us, represents home in whatever manifestation that’s important to us. At some point in our lives we’re all going to need our Trip To Bountiful. If we’re lucky, it will give us a sense of completion and resolution. And if we’re very, very lucky, it will transform the people closest to us, as it did Mama Watts' son and daughter-in-law.