THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL THEATRE REVIEW
So your erstwhile reviewer quickly got bored during the first scene of Act I of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful. Where the hell were all of the explosions? How about some costumed superheroes? Instead of gunplay or swordplay there was just wordplay. Lots of blah, blah and blather -- call it “Foote-in-mouth-disease.” The show featured what used to be called “an all Negro cast”, but where oh where was the whooping, hollering, hoofing and crooning? Even worse, it starred an 80-year-old actress playing an old lady, and to top things off there appeared to be audio problems making it difficult to hear some of the dialogue.
Well, at least in terms of the Hollywood formula, Foote’s stage adaptation got two things right: It is a stage play featuring big Tinseltown names, as well as a work derived from another medium that it has bounced back and forth from. There have been a bounty of Bountifuls, starting with the 1953 NBC-TV play starring -- get this! -- Lillian Gish, Eileen Heckart and Eva Marie Saint on the Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse. A version of this teleplay was adapted for and performed on Broadway. Bountiful next returned on the big screen, with Geraldine Page scoring the Best Actress Oscar and Foote a screenwriting nom for the 1985 movie co-starring John Heard and Rebecca De Mornay. Then there was a 2013 Broadway revival starring Cicely Tyson, Vanessa Williams and Cuba Gooding, Jr. and a 2014 Lifetime made-for-TV-movie with Tyson and Williams reprising their roles and Blair Underwood in Gooding, Jr.’s part as Ludie Watts.
It is the latter cast that’s trodding the boards at the Ahmanson in Bountiful’s current incarnation, which is directed by Michael Wilson, who previously helmed the Lifetime version. And by the time they and Foote were done skillfully, subtly working their magic this critic was ensnared in what could be called Foote’s drama of everyday life featuring ordinary people facing the vicissitudes of existence. The production’s captivating conundrums include the elderly Carrie Watts’ (Tyson) desire to return to her tiny Texas hometown one last time before she dies. It is a testament to Foote’s talent as a dramatist that he manages to pack his Lone Star State odyssey with much of the tension of Odysseus’ epic ancient sojourn across the Mediterranean, or the exploratory cross-continental quest of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in On the Road.
For 20 years the uprooted Carrie has lived in the big city with her son Ludie and his disputatious, prima donna wife Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams, the William Henry Harrison of Miss Americas, who so deliciously dished malevolence from 2006-2010 as Wilhelmina Slater on the Ugly Betty ABC series). The two women clash -- often over Carrie’s pension check, which helps pay for the diminutive domain they inhabit together in a Houston apartment house, with a divided Ludie often caught in the middle of the two bickering women. As his mom yearns to return to the home of his boyhood, the hard working Ludie strives to keep peace in the household and to get a raise.
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When Ludie and Jessie Mae, and then Greyhound ticket agents and a Sheriff (Devon Abner), attempt to prevent Carrie from returning to the place of her birth there is almost a mutiny on the Bountiful. In the process city slicker Ludie becomes a Luddite, waxing poetic along with his Ma about their good ol’ hometown, and the simple joys of the rustic life, from the singing birds on wing to the fields. Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end!
Like Geraldine Page, Lillian Gish -- who co-starred in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist blockbuster The Birth of a Nation as the virginal emblem of Southern womanhood who is “rescued” from rape by a “mulatto” by the Ku Klux Klan -- obviously was white. So the themes of aching for home, of nature versus the urbanized, confronting aging and so on, are universal. Thus the transition from a Caucasian cast to a mostly Black one is seamless, and the saga -- and song -- remains, more or less, the same, as being human trumps racial identity. Although set in the 1950s, Bountiful could take place today. (Of course, the fact that the Sheriff is kindly instead of a violent gunslinger not only goes against the Hollywood strain, but serves to remind viewers that Bountiful is a work of fiction, after all.)
The Ahmanson production’s scenic transitions filmicly flow with the sets by scenic designer Jeff Cowie simply zowie. The supporting cast, in particular Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Thelma, all shine along with the principals. While there might not be any ultra-violence or comic book characters, once he gave it a chance this reviewer ended up loving this Trip to Bountiful, which did, after all, have a protagonist with superpowers. As the curtain falls Cicely Tyson as Carrie waves and says “goodbye”, as if the actress who has touched us so much with poignant performances such as in 1974’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, is bidding a fond farewell to the audience, which incidentally rose at the premiere to give her and the cast a well-deserved standing ovation. Here’s hoping that Ms. Tyson will be drinking from the waters of life -- be they flowing from a once segregated water fountain or that mythic creek at Bountiful -- for many years to come.
The Trip to Bountiful is playing Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays Sept. 28, Oct. 12 and 26 and Nov. 2 at 1:00 and Sundays Oct. 5 and 19 at 6:30 p.m. through Nov. 2 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012. For more info: www.centertheatregroup.org/; (213)628-2772.
L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” (See: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/.) Rampell and co-author Luis Reyes will be signing books at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 6 at the bookstore Distant Lands, 20 S. Raymond Avenue,
Pasadena, CA 91105. (See: http://www.distantlands.com/events-calendar/.)