It isn’t the least bit funny, the mean treatment an old lady receives from her selfish family in “The Trip to Bountiful.” But that hasn’t dissuaded helmer Michael Wilson from injecting some cheap chuckles into Horton Foote’s achingly sweet and sad 1953 play about two generations of Texans cut off from their rural roots. So while it’s really quite wonderful to see Cicely Tyson on stage, acting so cute and spry and spunky, it can’t be said that she does full justice to Mrs. Carrie Watts, one of the most memorable characters in the scribe’s enduring canon.
One of the themes that Horton Foote keeps returning to in his bittersweet plays is the primal need of human beings to maintain some connection with their ancestral roots. The nearer they draw to the grave, the stronger that atavistic tug pulling them back home.
Perhaps more than any other of his characters, Mrs. Watts (Tyson) hears that call to return to the place that nourished her for much of her life. Sensing that her time is near, she feels compelled to make one last trip to her family home in the town ofBountiful. Like the town itself, the house has long been abandoned. But if she could only take one last look at the fields from the front porch, smell the air and listen to the birds, she knows that she would come away with the courage to sustain her at the end of her earthly journey.
Too bad for her, the old lady is stuck living with her spineless son, Ludie (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), and his bossy wife, Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams), in a two-room apartment in Houston. The place is so cramped (in Jeff Cowie’s stifling set design), Jessie Mae has decreed that there be no hymn singing in the house or irritating talk about trips to Bountiful from her mother-in-law, who should just hand over her pension check and keep to her mouse hole.
Gooding, who is probably cast too old, has the sheepish look of a shamefaced boy who knows that he’s let down all the other kids on the team. That explains the ego-boosting pride he takes in his beautiful wife, but it limits the character’s poignancy as a dispirited middle-aged man who lacks the heart to stand up and assert himself because he knows that his whole life has been a failure.
Williams looks so gorgeous in Van Broughton Ramsey’s period costumes, she actually makes the insipid look of the 50s look good. And as diva of the house, she puts heart, soul, and teeth into badgering her poor mother-in-law into submission. But it’s such a broad take on Jessie Mae that it pushes the character into caricature and takes the early scenes of the play with her.
As old and fragile as she is, it would take a great force of will and an act of sheer desperation for Mrs. Watts to keep her pension check out of Jessie Mae’s claws and make her way to Bountiful. But a tone of desperation is last thing wanted in this production, which reaches for a lighter air of triumphant comic cleverness in the way that Mrs. Watts pulls off her coup.
The second act expands on this sitcom sensibility. The one that says: the kids may think they’re in charge around here, but foxy, lovable old Grandma will eventually get her way by charming the pants off everyone. But the change of venue also puts Tyson in the company of actors who know how to keep their characters from going over the edge.
In the process of making her perilous way to Bountiful, Mrs. Watts meets a young war bride played by Condola Rashad (as delightful in the role as she is adorable in a blue-and-white polkadot dress) who takes comfort in the old woman’s religious conviction and shows her the respect and concern she’s denied by her own family.
Mrs. Watts is also befriended by a kindly ticket agent at the bus station. It’s one of those small, perfectly etched cameo roles that Foote wrote with great care, and that Arthur French, a character actor who could give everybody lessons in that supportive art, plays with great affection.
The only time that re-casting the play for an African American cast runs into a snag is when a white Texas sheriff is put into the position of playing another of Mrs. Watts’ champions. (Would you believe a good ole boy sheriff chauffeuring an old black lady to an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere?) But Tom Wopat is such a sympathetic mensch in the role that he makes the unbelievable come true.
(Stephen Sondheim Theater; 1,055 seats; $142)
A Nelle Nugent, Kevin Liles, Paula Marie Black, David R. Weinreb, Stephen C. Byrd, Alia M. Jones, Kenneth Teaton, Carole L. Haber/Philip Geier, Wendy Federman/Carl Moellenberg/Ricardo Hornos, and Fifty Church Street Productions/Hallie Foote/Tyson & Kimberly Chandler, in association with Joseph Sirola, Howard & Janet Kagan / Charles Salameno, Sharon A. Carr / Patricia R. Klausner, Raymond Gaspard / Andrea M. Price, and Willette Murphy Klausner / Reginald M. Browne presentation of a play in two acts by Horton Foote. Associate producers Francesca Zambello, Faith Gay, Marvet Britto, and Randolph Sturrup. Directed by Michael Wilson.
Sets, Jeff Cowie; costumes, Van Broughton Ramsey; lighting, Rui Rita; original music & sound; hair design, Paul Huntley; makeup, Angelina Avallone; production stage manager, Robert Bennett. Opened April 23, 2013. Reviewed April 22. Running time: TWO HOURS, 15 MIN.
With: Cicely Tyson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Vanessa Williams, Condola Rashad, Arthur French, Tom Wopat, Devon Abner, Curtis Billings, Pat Bowie, Leon Addison Brown, Susan Heyward, Bill Kux, Linda Powell, Charles Turner.