There is a Bountiful in everyone, an Edenic place of innocence and tranquility, the refuge to which we each yearn to return if only to replenish the strength to carry on. In a sublime performance in Horton Foote's classic play, Cicely Tyson transports her audience with her as she makes her own way back home.
Foote's The Trip to Bountiful is one of the great American plays, and Carrie Watts is one of the great characters of the American theater. Michael Wilson's inspired revival that opened last night on Broadway is at once funny, poignant, and ultimately cathartic as Tyson's Carrie travels to the place of her childhood, where scissor-tails soar across a spacious blue sky and the salt air of the sea invigorates her resolve.
With a sterling cast that features a splendid Cuba Gooding Jr. as Carrie's son Ludie, Vanessa Williams as his wife Jessie Mae, and Condola Rashad as Thelma, the young woman who befriends Carrie, and includes such fine seasoned actors as Tom Wopat, Arthur French, and Devon Abner, it is a defining staging of Foote's play.
The story is a simple one, and the best synopsis is the one Foote gave 60 years ago when he pitched the idea to NBC's Fred Coe for the Philco Television Playhouse. "It's a story about an old lady who wants to go home," Foote said. When he didn't expand on that, Coe looked at Foote and said, "That's it?" "That's it," Foote replied, and Coe green-lighted the project.
The old lady is Carrie, now living in the confines of Ludie's and Jessie Mae's small apartment in Houston, and the home she pines to return to is Bountiful, a small town on the Texas coast where her father once farmed cotton.
It is a marvel to watch Tyson bring Carrie so indelibly to life onstage with small gestures that become so much a part of the character it is hard to imagine her without them. As when she takes out her frustrations with her daughter-in-law on her rocking chair -- furiously rocking, rocking, rocking until it seems the chair will take flight. Or the joy that spreads across her face when she is at last free to burst into full-throated singing of a hymn without the fear of a disapproving reprimand from Jessie Mae.
Finally, there is the heart-breaking dismay as she arrives at the dilapidated and abandoned house that had once been home. "Ludie, Ludie," she says. "What's happened to us? Why have we come to this?" she asks her son. It's a question that seems to arise with increasing frequency these days. Tyson delivers Carrie's final lamentation for the land and for the past with a resigned acceptance that is like the last notes of a requiem.
"Pretty soon it'll all be gone," Carrie tells Ludie. "Ten years... twenty... this house... me... you."
Gooding is outstanding throughout, especially in that same final scene when he gives one of the most moving speeches of the play (one that Foote added for the stage version of the original teleplay), recalling his grandfather's death and confessing to remembering things he had long denied. Ludie is the voice of reason in the play, and Gooding is quietly eloquent in a monologue that concludes: "Mama, I want to stop remembering. It doesn't do any good to remember."
Williams finds a human side to the somewhat thankless role of Jessie Mae, Carrie's carping and annoyed daughter-in-law for whom life is measured out in trips to the beauty shop, movie magazines, and drinking Cokes at the drugstore.
Rashad is terrific as Thelma, a proper young woman who is traveling to live with her parents while her husband serves in the army and who takes a kindly interest in Carrie's welfare. She conveys a whole character with her eyes alone.
Wilson's superb staging is set in 1953, the year the play first aired on TV. And Jeff Cowie's admirable sets (a cramped apartment in Houston, a segregated bus station, and the giant open spaces of rural Texas) and Van Broughton Ramsey's bright costumes (floral print dresses, wide colorful neckties, and hats) provide the audience with a time capsule of authenticity. But Bountiful is not restricted to a specific era or bound by geographic confines. It is a place each generation must discover in its own time.