The stage version of Horton Foote’s 1953 teleplay “The Trip to Bountiful” failed to prosper in either its late-1953 Broadway production (39 performances, despite the presence of Lillian Gish, Jo Van Fleet and Eva Marie Saint) or a 1959 Off Broadway version (27 perfs). Nevertheless, it was made into a movie in 1985, for which Geraldine Page won an Oscar. Now it’s receiving a 50th-anniversary production from Hartford Stage and Houston’s Alley Theater. Unfortunately, the passing years have only exacerbated its simplicity and “sudsy woes,” to quote the Chicago Tribune’s Claudia Cassidy.
The play’s pivotal character, Mrs. Carrie Watts (or Mother Watts, as her frightful daughter-in-law calls her), was to have been played by Jean Stapleton in Hartford and Houston. But she had to drop out for personal reasons and was replaced by West Coast actress Dee Maaske, who played Mother Watts in an Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of the play in Ashland in 2001.
Maaske gives a gentle, honest reading of the role, one very different from Page’s mannered interpretation. But neither she nor anyone else involved — including director Michael Wilson and Horton Foote’s actress daughter Hallie and her husband, Devon Abner, both in the cast — can flesh out a play that seems so underwritten (particularly in the case of Mother Watts’ milquetoast failure of a son Ludie, played by Abner).
The first act is a family drama in which Mother Watts endures the incessant bickering of her daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (Foote), a mean, completely selfish nag who is also, unfortunately, a cliche. The two women and Ludie are cooped up in a small Houston apartment and have been for some 15 years. In fact, Mother Watts has been away from her home in the Gulf Coast town of Bountiful for 20 years and has been pining to return to it all that time.
She eventually escapes while Jessie Mae is out at the drugstore, the play’s second act covering her bus journey back to Bountiful. The final act takes place in Bountiful itself, now a ghost town, at the disintegrating farmhouse Mother Watts once lived in. It gradually evolves into a character study of Mother Watts.
This is the type of play that has given rise to Foote being dubbed “the Chekhov of small-town America.” But there are no Chekhovian depths or resonances here. And even plot details often seem clumsy or forced or just plain unbelievable.
The cast is fine but little more. The settings, which make use of a revolve to encompass the Houston apartment, two bus terminals, a bus and Bountiful, have a stripped-down realism that doesn’t always work well. In the last act, designer Jeff Cowie has provided a lovely lyrical backdrop of fields and woods behind a scrim, leaving the stage in front of it bare. Trouble is, this gives no hint at all of the disintegrating farmhouse at which the action is supposed to be taking place. But then, one of the points of this minor work is that you can’t go home again.