Tuesday, April 23, 2013

'The Trip To Bountiful': A Revival To Cherish For Bringing Cicely Tyson Back to the Stage

Cicely Tyson and Condola Rashad in 'The Trip To Bountiful'

Music suffuses the endearing new revival of The Trip To Bountiful, on view at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre and starring the indomitable Cicely Tyson as Carrie Watts, an elderly widow bound and determined to escape her stultifying urban existence and return to live out her days at her family home in rural Texas. 

The music comes from many sources:  from Perry Como crooning on the radio, from the chirping of the redbirds and scissortails that floods Mrs. Watts with joyful memories, and, most of all, from the hymns she loves to sing and in which she finds great strength and comfort.  (I don’t know whether this is occurring at every performance, but at the one I attended, many in the audience joined Ms. Tyson in singing one of the hymns; far from distracting, it felt like a spontaneous and transcendent moment.)

Playwright Horton Foote originally wrote The Trip to Bountiful as a teleplay in 1953, during the Golden Age of Television when first-rate theatrical dramas and live televised productions were standard fare. The original TV production starred Lillian Gish as Mrs. Watts, and the iconic actress took the play to Broadway shortly thereafter. Over the years there have been several theatrical revivals, along with a movie (1985) that garnered an Academy Award for Geraldine Page.  Later, in 2006, Lois Smith won a  Drama Desk Award for her portrayal of the same character in an off-Broadway production at the Signature Theatre Company. 

In short, Mrs. Watts has been very kind to actresses of a certain age.  At the time she entered into their lives, Ms. Gish was 60, Ms. Page was 61, and Ms. Smith was 76.  But Ms. Tyson beats them all.  At what has been widely reported to be the age of 88, she grabs hold of the character, the stage, and our hearts from start to end. 

The plot of The Trip to Bountiful is a simple one (the title pretty much says it all), and the play would be most resistant to any sort of fussy production.  Thankfully, Michael Wilson, who has had a lot of experience directing Mr. Foote’s plays, helms the evening with a gentle hand.  The story unfolds without a lot of sentimentality and avoids melodrama during several potentially melodramatic scenes. 

Mrs. Watts feels trapped, living as she does with her hapless son Ludie (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and sharp-tongued daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams) in a two-room flat in Houston.  The only thing to do is to make her escape and return to her family home in Bountiful, where she intends to live with a childhood friend. 

Along the way, she shares a bus ride and swaps stories and hymns with a young woman (Condola Rashad), loses her handbag with her pension check inside, and spends the night in a bus station just a few miles from her destination. 

It is not difficult to imagine a version of the play in which the final miles of Mrs. Watts’s journey are made in a pine box, but this is an ending that Foote wisely stayed away from in the writing. Instead, he sends a kind-hearted sheriff (Tom Wopat), who has been dispatched to find Mrs. Watts and reunite her with her family. 
It is the sheriff who drives her the rest of the way to Bountiful, where she finds her childhood friend has passed away, her family home is in ruin, and the world of her dreams has long since returned to nature.  Still, it is enough that she has made the journey, and she is able to conjure up a sense of satisfaction and inner peace.  When Ludie and Jessie Mae show up, she is content to return with them to Houston, carrying Bountiful inside her. 

The acting company does a fine job all around, mostly performing roles that are only modestly defined and that serve largely as foils to the central character.  Mr. Gooding, who is making his professional stage debut with this production, does seem somewhat ill-at-ease onstage, and when I saw him, he was losing his voice.  Yet I found him to be most appropriately cast in the role of the befuddled Ludie, trying to little avail to be the peacemaker in the constant struggle between his mother and wife.   

The more experienced Ms. Williams, as the self-centered and mean-spirited Jessie Mae, and Ms. Rashad and Mr. Wopat make the most of their parts.  

But, of course, it is Ms. Tyson who carries the play. She is in turn charming, devilish, forthright, sweet, stubborn—and always fascinating to watch.  Whether she is 79, as her official biography has it, or 88, as The New York Times has declared, It hardly seems to matter.  To quote Shakespeare, writing of Cleopatra:  “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.” 

Brava, Ms. Tyson, and yet again brava!!!

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