There are few lovelier or more lyrical plays about aging in America than “The Trip to Bountiful,” Horton Foote’s 1953 jewel about a feisty widow hell-bent on a final visit to her Texas hometown. But if Foote’s elegiac portraits of a long-vanished South — particularly a once-fertile Gulf Coast –seem only to improve with the years, the new revival of “Trip to Bountiful” at Signature Theatre Company is regrettably flat and underwhelming. Despite the reliably affecting presence of the redoubtable Lois Smith in the lead role of Carrie Watts and a seamless scenic design by E. David Cosier, director Harris Yulin’s production remains stubbornly average.
The blahs are an easy trap with Foote; his dialogue captures the banality and indirection of so much conversation, from small talk among strangers to the thoughtless chatter of well-worn loved ones, with such unforced acuity that it flirts with inconsequence. At times this production nails exactly the right bemused observational tone, as when Carrie announces to a bus ticket seller (Frank Girardeau) that she once visited his town for her first formal dance, and “quite a few times in my life, shopping.”
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Too often, though, the gab here feels drab, particularly the stream issuing from Jessie Mae (Hallie Foote), Carrie’s selfish daughter-in-law, who opposes the old woman’s plan to return to her childhood home and continually casts her whipped husband, Ludie (Devon Abner), in a thankless peacemaker role. A sort of spiritual cousin to Natalya, the petit-bourgeois terror of “The Three Sisters,” Jessie Mae is an unapologetic irritant, more pathetic than sympathetic — a juicy role for an actress with a fiercer appetite.
But while Hallie Foote, the playwright’s daughter, displays a lived-in ease with the language, it’s a facility that comes at the expense of dramatic spark. This Jessie Mae is monotonously impassive, even in her supposed flare-ups with Carrie; she seems both more needlessly cruel and more ridiculously petty than she ought to.
As Carrie’s sickly, put-upon son Ludie, Abner wears a perpetual look of slightly shell-shocked dismay and whines in a plaintive voice, though he finally breaks through, too little too late, near play’s end.
Contrasting with the play’s deceptively prattling drone are moments of gushing sincerity, when characters finally let loose with what’s really on their minds.
In the touching centerpiece scene on a bus from Houston to Harrison, Carrie bonds with a young soldier’s wife, Thelma (Meghan Andrews). Though the trigger for Carrie’s effusion is her joy at escaping her confinement with Ludie and Jessie Mae, the tale she unspools for Thelma is a heartbreaker — all the more so because we can intuit, from Smith’s sensitive rendering, more than Carrie would ever put into words about a whole hardscrabble generation of farmers and survivors who clung to their land with punishing loyalty. In Carrie’s recollections of this bygone era, gingerly paced by Smith, we can discern what might glibly be called a way of life, or perhaps more accurately a world of pain.
Andrews makes a sweet if slightly blank Thelma, while the rest of the supporting cast hits the right tone of unruffled kindliness, particularly Girardeau’s circumspect ticket man and Jim Demarse’s tall, laconic sheriff.
But this is Smith’s show. Previously a vehicle for the likes of Lillian Gish, Geraldine Page and Ellen Burstyn, the role of Carrie proves as natural a fit for Smith as her light print dress and thick orthopedic pumps. Her shoulders gently hunched and rounded, Smith makes a telling tic of craning her neck forward, alternately conveying birdlike attentiveness and a kind of ritual of self-straightening. She also has a compelling way of shaping the tempo of her dialogue to the whims of her own inner metronome, from molasses slow to waterfall fast.
By herself, Smith nearly makes this a worthwhile “Trip.” If the other points of Carrie’s family triangle, Jessie Mae and Ludie, were sharper, the show might be the wrenching and resonant journey it can be. Instead it feels more like a faintly tiresome holiday gathering.