By: David Sheward
"How did we get to this place?" Carrie Watts asks her son Ludie as they stand before the ruined house they used to live in. It’s a shattering question, as both have arrived at miserable stations in life through unlucky circumstances. Since her farming land played out, the elderly Carrie has turned into a quarrelsome crone, confined in a stuffy city, while Ludie is just now getting back on his feet after a long-term illness cost him his job.
In the new revival of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, the question has added resonance because the Watts family is cast with African-American actors. The weight of racism is subtly suggested in Michael Wilson’s moving staging of this 1953 drama, yet it’s definitely there. But the nontraditional casting is just one element in a splendid revival that provides a triumphant return to Broadway for Cicely Tyson, whose age has been reported as anywhere from 79 to 88. No matter what her true age is, Tyson gradually sheds years as Carrie rediscovers her dignity on her journey.
The role has proved a showcase for such luminous stars as Lillian Gish (the 1953 original TV version and Broadway adaptation the same year), Geraldine Page (an Oscar winner for the 1985 film), and Lois Smith (an Obie and Drama Desk winner for the 2005 Signature Theatre revival, also helmed by Wilson). It’s no wonder. Carrie gets to comically spar with her disagreeable daughter-in-law, reveal her tragic girlhood romance in a long monologue, physically confront a sheriff, and undergo an epiphany of understanding as she accepts her situation and makes the best of it.
Not much happens in Foote’s poetic evocation of ordinary lives. Carrie cannot stand sharing a two-room Houston apartment with Ludie and his self-absorbed wife, Jessie Mae. With her pension check safely secured in her bra, Carrie takes a bus ride to Bountiful, the now-deserted town of her youth on the Gulf of Mexico. Along the journey, she meets a lonely Army bride and that sheriff who turns out to be sympathetic, and finally confronts her past dreams. At the bus station, we encounter the signs of the segregated South where Carrie must wait in the "colored only" area and purchase her ticket from a separate counter from white passengers. Wilson and his set designer, Jeff Cowie, wisely downplay these elements and let them just be a natural part of the Watts’s world.
Tyson overplays the comic aspects of Carrie early on-hiding her pension check with an elaborate flourish, for example. But she gradually abandons this tact (as Wilson does in his staging) and allows Foote’s simple eloquence to seep into her performance. When she directly delivers the soliloquy explaining why Carrie never married the man she really loved, you can feel her heart breaking, and yours will too. By the end of the trip, Tyson is truly luminous, radiating Carrie’s joy after redeeming her self-worth. Cuba Gooding Jr., in his Broadway debut, fully exposes Ludie’s sorrow at his perceived failures, but he also remembers this man really loves both his burdensome mother and his selfish wife. Vanessa Williams keeps the contentious Jessie Mae from becoming a villain. This is a woman in middle age who was a beauty queen and is still used to be treated like a princess because of her looks.
Condola Rashad has many sweet and understated moments as Thelma, Carrie’s traveling companion, as does Tom Wopat as the sheriff with an unexpected love of birds. Veteran Arthur French makes the small role of a train station attendant memorable. Along with Cowie’s evocative setting and Rui Rita’s romantic lighting, the cast and director weave a tapestry of ordinary Americans, seeking home and making due when dreams are no longer sustainable.
April 24, 2013
Opened April 23 for an open run. Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rs St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $37-142. (880) 432-7250 www.telecharge.com
Photos: Joan Marcus
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Originally Published on April 24, 2013 in ArtsinNY.com