04/26/2013 03:52 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2013

THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL: The Magic of Cicely Tyson


The saga of Horton Foote's wonderful play The Trip to Bountiful, a beautiful and sensitive study of a wise and loving old lady who longs to return to her childhood home in Texas in the autumn of her years, is a long and circuitous one.

This fine piece of writing started out as a dramatic television vehicle for Lillian Gish in 1953, moved on to Broadway and off-Broadway productions, and made it to the screen in 1985, winning an Academy Award for Geraldine Page. The new Broadway revival at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, with its delicacy and sweetness enhanced by a majestic performance by Cicely Tyson, is just about the nicest gift producer Hallie Foote (the playwright's daughter) and director Michael Wilson could give us this otherwise dismal Broadway year.

Magnified as a mirror to the black experience in the 1950s South, nothing in the text has been changed and the play is every bit as moving and universal as ever. Old ladies, especially Southern-vintage seniors, are Cicely Tyson's forte. She won every award in the book for movies like The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Roots and Sounder, and the role of Carrie Watts fits her like a warm sable. Uprooted from a small farming community in Texas called Bountiful, a bump in the road so insignificant that it appears on no highway map, Mother Watts has been transported against her will to Houston, where she shares a cramped two-room apartment with her loving but spineless son Ludie (Cuba Gooding, Jr. in the best performance of his career) and his flighty, exasperated, impatient wife Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams). Ludie worries about his mother, but he's a lump who doesn't know what to do with her, while Jessie Mae treats her with an irritating mixture of scorn, annoyance, and intolerance.

Patronized, ignored, or harassed, Mother Watts feels she's a liability to them both. Withdrawing into her spiritual hymns or jealously guarding her meager pension checks, the old lady can't seem to do anything right. More and more, she dreams of returning to her old family home in rural Texas. One day she gathers up her few belongings, stuffs them into a battered suitcase, and leaves Houston before dawn on a Greyhound bus. The trip back to Bountiful becomes a symbol of all she's got left of her memories. Seeing the old town, the old wood frame house, the old cornfield once again, becomes the unfinished business that awaits her before she dies. Befriended by a gentle young soldier's wife on the bus, the old lady strikes up a conversation. The girl, Thelma (Condola Rashad),becomes the conduit through which Mrs. Watts' pent-up emotions are channeled. Remembering the land she once tilled, the crops she grew, the children she buried, and the only man she loved but could never marry, Cicely Tyson communicates the spirit, the wit, the wisdom, and the simplicity of old people everywhere.

She gets as far as Harrison (the fictional town where all of Horton Foote's plays are set) and the white sheriff (Tom Wopat, in one of his rare non-musical appearances) drives her the rest of way. The sheriff, the bus-depot manager, Carrie's son and daughter-in-law, all seem determined to stop her, but when this old lady finally stands on her own crumbling front porch for one final time, feeling her roots, the experience is so life-enriching you want to cheer. Which is exactly what the audience did at the performance I saw. They also sighed every time Cicely Tyson seemed weary or near defeat, talked back to anyone who threatened her, and sang an entire song with her, screaming for an encore--which she did, without breaking character. It's been 30 years since she last appeared on a Broadway stage, but she's a magical as ever. You breathe with her, you feel her pain, and your hear lifts when she breaks into her familiar wall-to-wall smile like new sunlight at dawn.

Growing up in Texas added to my appreciation of The Trip to Bountiful immensely. I felt the sadness of another generation that watched the farmers wear out the land and move reluctantly to the city. I identified with the kids who left Texas, leaving the land to weeds. But even if you grew up in Brooklyn or Bombay, the universal plea for compassion and understanding among people who are basically good, regardless of age, is a message that transcends geography. Michael Wilson's direction, Jeff Cowie's weathered sets and Van Broughton Ramsay's period costumes serve Horton Foote's impassioned writing nobly. The acting is pure perfection. As the patrician young wife on the bus whose husband is overseas, Condola Rashad excels in a role that made Eva Marie Saint a star. As the obnoxious Jessie Mae, the role that Eileen Heckart played with great success in bygone days, Vanessa Williams manages to shine a flashlight beam into the shadowy corners of a complex woman without making her repugnant.

And at the center of the poetry, making music of her own, is the indomitable Cicely Tyson. In her floral house dresses, patterned flour-sack aprons, and orthopedic shoes, she's as natural and homespun as peach jam on a gingham tablecloth. Every flutter, every wrinkled brow, has a meaning nobody else could duplicate. Her innate grasp of inner character, her awesome knowledge of human behavior, and her ability to make her audience forget about make believe and actually feel they're spending time with an old and trusted friend, is what lifts The Trip to Bountiful to the level of art.