Respectable But Unremarkable Bountiful

Carrie Watts has just one item on her bucket list: Visit her childhood home in Bountiful, TX. Making this happen shouldn’t be such a big deal, since she lives with her son and his wife just a few miles away in Houston. Alas, her life in their one-bedroom apartment is not her own and a chunk of her monthly pension check goes to rent and board.

Though Horton Foote’s 1953 classic, The Trip to Bountiful, offers poignant satisfaction from its journey of an old woman making her last request come true, the juice of the play comes from watching three sympathetic people trying to navigate too-close quarters. Watts is polite and doting but stubborn. Daughter-in-law Jessie Mae is tolerant but expects to be queen of the shabby castle—or at least to be first in her husband’s thoughts. In between stands Ludie, hard-working, sleep-deprived and wishing only for peace between the two strong women in his life.

As with so much of Foote’s oeuvre, the drama springs from petty slights, bittersweet memories and life changes that are outwardly small but emotionally seismic. There are no car chases; just a bus ride during which Watts meets a young bride with whom she sings a hymn and shares her story. By play’s end, the characters will still be in their same situation, but the ground rules will have shifted in a profound way.

Bountiful’s current Broadway revival, which has been extended through September 1 at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, hits the right notes for about two-thirds of the evening. Cicely Tyson mostly fights against playing Carrie too cute, while Vanessa Williams doesn’t fear giving Mae a couple of mildly villainous moments (as opposed to making the wife purely sympathetic, since the audience is primed to see her as the bad guy from the get-go anyway).

As Ludie, Cuba Gooding, Jr., is simply out of his league—another reason the last third of the show proves a let-down. As directed by Michael Wilson, the staging of this delicate, often humorous drama veers towards easy sitcom. When Carrie and bus companion Thelma (Condola Rashad) share a late-night hymn at the depot, suddenly this shared moment turns into an audience singalong, which is the mood equivalent of adding a tap number to the wedding in Our Town.

Wilson and Tyson have also apparently agreed that once Watts achieves her goal, she’ll merrily endure anything else life and family pile on her—a decision that robs the final scenes of their melancholy. One hopes the artists made this choice because they like Watts too much to make her exit on an ambivalent note and not because they’re pandering to an audience that has sat through too many half hours on The CW. The obligatory standing ovation 79-year-old Tyson receives at curtain call is triumphant; I just wish it were also tear-stained.