Like other American masterworks such as Our Town and Buried Child, Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful finds universal profundity in the goings on of small town life. But unlike the original 1953 teleplay, or the many revivals since, this touring production of the Tony-nominated Broadway revival features an African-American cast, bringing new resonance to the classic.
In the play, the small-town is Bountiful, Texas in the early 1950s, a place so out of the way that buses only stop at nearby Harrison. The elderly Mrs. Carrie Watts (the phenomenal Cicely Tyson), who wants so desperately to return to Bountiful one last time, is trapped in a tiny Houston apartment with her son Ludie (a marvelously layered Blair Underwood) and his self-involved wife Jessie Mae (a perfectly chirpy Vanessa Williams).
Carrie has her government pension check, the leverage (and income) she needs to realize her dream of feeling the dirt between her fingers again. Jessie Mae, however, has designs on that check, which the family needs to get by, and which Jessie Mae needs to support her Coca-Cola habit and her trips to the beauty parlor. Trapped between these women is Ludie, who loves his mother as a dutiful son, but who also tries to keep his wife happy, knowing he hasn’t provided her the life she dreams of.
The following morning, after everyone is finally out of the house, Carrie is finally able to escape, meeting along the way young Army bride Thelma (a nicely nuanced Jurnee Smollett-Bell), who is traveling the same road; Roy (Arthur French), the night manager at the Harrison bus depot; and the Sheriff of Harrison (Devon Abner).
Jeff Cowie’s “hanging windows” of the Houston apartment building and Rui Rita’s lighting masterfully depict the sardine-like suffocation of urban living. Cowie’s bus depot set is similarly appealing, using trompe l’oeil effects to create depth, and Carrie’s bus journey is ingeniously simulated, complete with the headlights from passing cars and John Gromada’s evocative nighttime soundscape.
The star of the show is of course the Tony Award-winning Tyson, who brings a youthful sense of wonder to the role, while at the same time showcasing her comic timing. Her boundless energy, for a woman in her 80s, is incredible. Director Michael Wilson harnesses that energy in his skillful staging of the cat-and-mouse game played by Carrie and Jessie Mae as they get on each other’s nerves in the family's cramped two-room apartment.
While the African-American cast infuses the play with new energy, the production never loses the universality of Foote’s piece, which ever so subtly makes us reconsider our current technological free fall into modernity.
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Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; through November 2. (213) 972-4400, www.centertheatregroup.org.
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