Move over, you adorable scamps in "Annie." Settle down, weird girls in "Matilda." Broadway has a new unlikely heroine, a frail widow who hums hymns and has a bad heart.
A first-rate revival of Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful" opened Tuesday at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre determined to demonstrate that insight isn't the sole domain of the young.
A sublime Cicely Tyson returns to Broadway for the first time in 30 years to play Carrie Watts, the widow who shares a cramped two-room apartment in Houston in 1953 with her devoted son and overbearing daughter-in-law. Watts is always looking back, while her son and his wife look forward.
Watts' only desire is to revisit her old home in Bountiful and recapture the vitality and purpose she seemed to lose when she left for the big city decades ago.
"I've turned into a hateful, quarrelsome old woman. And before I leave this earth, I'd like to recover some of the dignity," she says. "The peace I used to know. For I'm going to die."
The casting here is splendid. Not only is Tyson feisty and funny and glowing with inner light, but her co-stars prove more than compelling: Vanessa Williams is politely savage as her preening daughter-in-law, icy without becoming a dragon. Cuba Gooding Jr., making his Broadway debut as her son, nails the kind man unfortunately caught in the middle of these two women. And the rising talent Condola Rashad, as a soldier's wife, turns a small role into a star turn.
Michael Wilson, a noted director of Foote and Tennessee Williams, lets the words and action flow with a genuine gentleness and respect that allows each eye roll, shuffle and sigh to have its maximum impact. The care and love all the creators have for this play pours out from the stage.
The widow Watts is not someone we must feel pity for - quite the opposite, we cheer her on. When her family is out, she strips off her pajamas to reveal a dress underneath and makes a mad escape to the bus station, and we're with her, clapping. Ditto when she persuades the sheriff (a sweet Tom Wopat) to not only release her from custody but also drive her to Bountiful.
Yes, spoiler alert, she makes it to Bountiful. Mainly because no one can deny her. In Tyson's hands, this old woman is tough, firm and hopeful. She's the kind of woman who dances with strangers at bus stations, remembers details from years ago and seems to lose decades from her face when finally in Bountiful.
That's also in large part to Jeff Cowie, whose sets absolutely sing. His cramped Houston apartment gets the point across by having no wall between the young couple and the widow, and his cross-section of a bus in front of a starry sky is visually clever.
But his biggest challenge is the ramshackle home in Bountiful - it has to be something worth the trip. Cowie does exactly that with a comforting, if rotting, Victorian complete with flowers and overgrown grass. Rui Rita's lighting gives it a heavenly glow.
Foote's plays are often deceptively simple, cherishing the common, small-town man, and "The Trip to Bountiful" is no exception. It's about the buried desire to go back home, about finding grace and about keeping a connection to your roots, universal themes proved by the fact that a predominantly black cast has slipped into a play originally played by whites.
With so many noisy kids on Broadway these days dreaming of running away from their horrible lives, it's funny to be talking about a woman nearing the end of her life doing the same. In this case, though, Watts wants to return to the past, and your heart may sing like she does when she finally reaches her goal: "I'm home, I'm home. I'm home."
Horton Foote’s gentle drama “The Trip to Bountiful” is a star vehicle that runs on charm.
The wonderful veteran actress Cicely Tyson packs plenty of that playing Carrie Watts, a homesick woman who goes to great lengths to remedy her ache.
Tyson slowly but surely drives her way into your heart in a Broadway revival that casts the Watts family as African-American.
Foote’s play, seen first on TV and then on the Great White Way in 1953, is an affectionate reminder of essential truths that course through all of the writer’s plainspoken yet eloquent Texas tales: Where we come from informs who we are, and the past is never far from our thoughts.
Dramatically speaking, the story is as simple as a pillow embroidered with HOME SWEET HOME. In 1953 Houston, widowed pensioner Carrie Watts (Tyson) lives in sour circumstances. She exists in two cramped rooms with her beloved son, Ludie (Cuba Gooding Jr., in his Broadway debut), and his vain and bossy wife, Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams).
Carrie is a world away from the outsize space and kindness she knew in Bountiful — a baldly symbolic name if there ever was one. Nasty Jessie Mae even hogs Carrie’s monthly government check and forbids her from singing hymns.
It takes a secret plan, a last-ditch bus ride and a kindly cop (Tom Wopat) for Carrie to get back home. Her old house, like her, is rundown, but who cares? It’s home sweet home.
Carrie has been a showcase role for Lillian Gish in 1953 and Geraldine Page, who won an Oscar in 1985. As in her memorable portraits in “Sounder” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," Tyson brings an inherent grace and dignity, as well as gumption, sly humor and knowing glances that make her endearing and believable.
Oscar winner Gooding Jr. and Williams do what they can with the cliched roles of the sad-faced mama’s boy and glamour-puss shrew you love to hate. Even with direction from Michael Wilson, who knows his way around Foote’s works, their scenes come off as very tinny.
Those moments stand in contrast to a beautiful and authentic encounter between Carrie and a young soldier’s wife, Thelma (Condola Rashad, restrained and lovely). During a bus ride to Bountiful, they trade secrets about themselves and love. It is this leg of “The Trip” that’s the most abundantly satisfying.
Few shows are as deceptively simple as “The Trip to Bountiful.” Horton Foote’s play is about an elderly woman, Carrie Watts, who’s dead set on seeing her childhood home in Bountiful, Texas, one last time. So she gets on a bus and goes.
The cast is small: Mrs. Watts lives with her son Ludie and his wife, Jessie Mae. On the bus she chats with a fellow traveler, and later she meets a local sheriff.
Not much happens, but Foote was a skilled chronicler of the immaterial elements of ordinary lives: nostalgia and hope, bitterness, friendship and love.
No wonder this first-ever Broadway revival drew a powerhouse cast: Cicely Tyson is Mrs. Watts, with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Vanessa Williams as Ludie and Jessie Mae. They share the natural, prickly-but-affectionate rapport of a real family, not hired stars.
Foote originally wrote “The Trip to Bountiful” in 1953 for television, starring Lillian Gish. She reprised the role on Broadway later that year. Foote also adapted the play for the screen in 1985. But you’d never guess the story is 60 years old: It has the timelessness of classic good yarns.
From the get-go, it’s obvious why Mrs. Watts wants to get away: She, Ludie and Jessie Mae share a cramped two-room Houston apartment. The women drive each other crazy, while Ludie tries to placate them both.
Jeff Cowie’s set inventively renders this forced intimacy, then beautifully opens up when Mrs. Watts sneaks out on her adventure, with Ludie and Jessie Mae in hot pursuit.
The reality of this production’s African-American casting hits then, as the bus station features “colored only” lines and pay phones. There, Mrs. Watts befriends a soldier’s young wife (Condola Rashad). Later, the race difference also adds subtle tension with her meeting a gruff sheriff (Tom Wopat).
When the traveler finally makes it to Bountiful, she discovers the house where she had been so happy is an empty ruin. No matter: She’s at peace.
Under the gentle direction of Michael Wilson (“The Orphans’ Home Cycle”), the cast is generally in sync with Foote’s subtle rhythm.
Tyson gives Mrs. Watts an endearing dogged persistence, but misses out a bit on her vulnerability, and even delivers a few slices of adorable-old-lady ham. Yet her hold on theatergoers is obvious: At a recent performance, half the audience spontaneously joined her in a hymn.
Gooding and Williams, on the other hand, triumph over difficult roles.
Williams’ Jessie Mae isn’t a bad person, just someone impatient and frustrated. As for Gooding, his Ludie isn’t so much a henpecked husband as a loving man trying hard to hide his regrets.
He calls his mother “ma’am” the entire show, but breaks down at the end: “Oh, Mama, I haven’t made any kind of life for you, either one of you, and I try so hard,” he tells her. “I try so hard.”
Make sure you have tissues handy for this one.
The title destination in Horton Foote’s “Trip to Bountiful,” which has been revived at the Stephen Sondheim Theater, is said to be a small, obscure town in Texas. But on the evidence of the performance of Cicely Tyson, who stars in the production that opened on Tuesday night under Michael Wilson’s slow-handed direction, Bountiful is a code name for the Fountain of Youth.
Playing the elderly Carrie Watts, a prisoner of family and circumstance in a cramped Houston apartment, Ms. Tyson first appears to us as stooped, breakable and about to keel over. With her grizzled gray cap of a wig, she could almost pass for 88, which is Ms. Tyson’s real age. But once Carrie is Bountiful-bound — having escaped from the watchful care of her son and his wife (Cuba Gooding Jr. and Vanessa Williams) — she sheds years as a cat sheds fur in the summertime.
Jessie Mae, the self-centered daughter-in-law played by Ms. Williams, has been warning Mother Watts that it’s just plain morbid to wallow in the past. But Carrie knows that there are strength and sustenance to be drawn from the rural land where she grew up. And sure enough, by the end of this production, Carrie is a ringer for Ms. Tyson in “Sounder,” the movie in which she memorably starred more than 40 years ago.
I suspect that this remarkable rejuvenation process is as much about an actress returning to Broadway, where Ms. Tyson last appeared in 1983, as it is about an old child of the earth going back to her birthplace. The liveliest moment in this generally sluggish production comes when Carrie is briefly transformed into a song-and-dance gal, early in the second act.
At this point, Carrie has made it all the way to a bus stop (once a train station) in Harrison, only 12 miles from Bountiful. She loves to sing hymns but in Houston is usually discouraged from doing so by the high-strung Jessie Mae. Now, with no wet-blanket daughter-in-law to cramp her style, and with Bountiful close at hand, Carrie delivers an increasingly spirited rendition of “Blessed Assurance,” assisted by a young Army bride named Thelma (Condola Rashad, in a lovely, low-key performance) who has become her traveling companion.
At the matinee I attended, Ms. Tyson’s interpretation of that hymn was so infectious that much of the audience was soon singing and clapping along. Ms. Tyson turned full-face to us, raised her arms and swayed in encouragement, like an impassioned choir master. You knew that an encore just had to follow, and though Ms. Tyson never broke character, it did.
Earlier Ms. Tyson had demonstrated a quieter virtuosity in what turned out to be the production’s most affecting scene, which takes place on the bus to Harrison. Carrie is comforting Thelma, whose husband has just left for military service, and the older woman makes the startling confession that she never loved her own husband, though she admired him.
She couldn’t marry the man she truly loved, because his father and hers didn’t get along. His name was Ray John Murray. And when Ms. Tyson pronounces it with solemn and melodic precision, you see Carrie seeing that young man. It’s a quintessential Horton Foote moment, right down to the triple-barreled name, in which a rue-tinged fragment of the past assumes an existence more vivid than the present.
Otherwise, this “Trip” — which has been designed as a Norman Rockwell-style evocation of 1950s America by Jeff Cowie (sets) and Rui Rita (lighting) — only fitfully captures the rhythms of everyday melancholy that you associate with Foote. Although casting the principal roles with African-Americans may be a novelty, it’s not an issue. As a portrait of the toll taken by the shift from rural to urban life in the 20th century, and of intergenerational conflict, “Bountiful” is hardly race-specific.
But among Mr. Foote’s best-known works — which it is, thanks in large part to the 1953 television and Broadway productions starring Lillian Gish, and the 1985 film for which Geraldine Page won an Oscar — “Bountiful” is the baldest in its sentimentality and its statement of themes.
This production allows too much dead air between lines, so that statements about people finding their dignity acquire signpost significance. The show lacks the deceptively easy conversational flow of which Mr. Wilson, as the director of Mr. Foote’s “Orphans’ Home Cycle” and “Dividing the Estate,” has previously shown himself a master.
Like the current Broadway revival of Lyle Kessler’s “Orphans,” “Bountiful” often undercuts itself by broadening comic moments, especially in the early family-friction scenes in the Houston apartment. The appealing Mr. Gooding is too perky and boyish to convey the crushed spirit of Ludie, Carrie’s son. And Ms. Williams is such a knockout in Van Broughton Ramsey’s 1950s dresses and peignoirs that it’s hard to believe that Jessie Mae never found Hollywood stardom or at least a richer husband.
By the production’s end, Ms. Williams, as ravishing as she is, has some competition in the looks department. Ms. Tyson’s Carrie has blossomed into genuine beauty during her nostalgic road trip, which makes the play’s final moments considerably less sorrowful than they usually are.
The 2005 Signature Theater revival of “Bountiful,” starring Lois Smith, left me drenched in tears. But at the end of this one, I felt kind of optimistic. If the word gets out, plastic surgeons are going to lose a lot of business. Anyone who wants to erase the effects of cruel time will be booking the next bus to Bountiful.
Sentimental journeys don't come much more bittersweet than "The Trip to Bountiful," the wistful Horton Foote serio-comedy that lured Cicely Tyson back to Broadway for the first time in 30 years.
This is lovely news. Tyson, whose significant career has been carved mostly in movies and TV, is radiant, shrewd and utterly natural onstage as Mrs. Carrie Watts, the elderly woman stuck in a two-room Houston flat with her ineffectual son and his ambitious, selfish wife.
With Cuba Gooding Jr., as her sweet, underachieving son, Ludie, and Vanessa Williams as mean Jessie Mae, director Michael Wilson's revival has both the wattage and the affection necessary to make this version feel as if Foote could have written his 1953 play for them.
This is not to say the production explores enough of the sad subtext that lurks beneath this story of a dislocated old woman desperate to return to Bountiful, the farm town, now a ghost town, where she was raised.
There is plenty of heartache when she pleads to her son, "Please, I want to go home." But Wilson seems conflicted about whether to stress the cruelty in Carrie's situation or to keep things light. Thus, Williams plays a real gorgon as the daughter-in-law, not just an overdressed, bored beauty obsessed with getting her hair done and going to the picture show. She actually treats Carrie as a servant, expecting her to clean and even help dress her.
So it's hard not to loathe her, and to hate Ludie for letting her abuse his mother like this. Meanwhile, although Tyson's Carrie throws Jessie Mae lots of dirty looks behind her back, the effect is more comic than deservedly hateful.
Still, we root for her escape, which, in Jeff Cowie's handsomely evocative sets, takes her to bus stations with waiting rooms and water fountains labeled "colored only." The supporting cast is abundant with good actors in small roles -- including rising star Condola Rashad as the kindly young friend on the bus, Tom Wopat as the kindly sheriff and Arthur French as the kindly station worker.
Tyson, who has said she admired this play since she saw Geraldine Page in the 1985 movie, says she told her agent, "get me my 'Trip to Bountiful' and I'll retire." Better, perhaps she'll make Broadway home.
If you've never looked at an elderly woman seated near you on the bus, train or subway and wondered what her back story was, then you've surely never seen or read The Trip to Bountiful, Horton Foote's folksy, poignant account of one such person making the journey of a lifetime.
Foote's Carrie Watts is a widow living with her son and daughter-in-law in a two-room apartment in Houston. Carrie sleeps in the living room, though when we meet her she is wide awake, gazing at the moon and singing a hymn. Her thoughts aren't of heaven, but of the small (and fictitious) Texas town of the 1953 play's title, where she grew up, married and raised a boy.
For Carrie, played in the new Broadway revival (*** out of four) by a sparkling Cicely Tyson, Bountiful has become almost as mythic — a place she wants to revisit before receiving her greater reward. Standing in her way are her now middle-aged child, Ludie, and his self-serving wife, Jessie Mae, played by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Vanessa Williams. Ludie, struggling financially, frets about Carrie, while Jessie Mae frets about her mother-in-law's pension checks, which have been helping her sustain a modest but indulgent lifestyle.
Carrie outsmarts them, landing a bus ticket to the town nearest her intended destination. With a little help from a few friendly strangers, she is able to see the place she once called home, and to make peace with the fact that she can't go back there.
That the cast of this Bountiful, which opened Tuesday at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, is predominantly black might have weighed more heavily on the choices made in reviving a beloved American work set in the 1950s, in the South. But director Michael Wilson, a frequent collaborator with Foote before the playwright's death, doesn't embellish the text with references to racial prejudice or segregation; he rather emphasizes the human struggles — for dignity and self-sufficiency, against loneliness and irrelevance — that drive these characters.
Not all the leads are as robust as Tyson, who conveys all of Carrie's grit and mischief and longing in a performance that is by turns playful and achingly bittersweet. But under Wilson's affectionate guidance, Gooding manages to show us the repressed fears fueling Ludie's passivity and, eventually, his potential to overcome them. The lovely Williams, while not the funniest or most irritating Jessie Mae you'll ever see, nails her condescending airs and sense of self-entitlement.
Rising star Condola Rashad brings a luminous sweetness to the role of Thelma, a shy young soldier's wife whom Carrie meets on her travels, while Tom Wopat manages just the right plain-spoken gallantry as a sheriff who helps our heroine complete her goal.
Not that anyone will doubt that this old gal would have made her way regardless.
It isn’t the least bit funny, the mean treatment an old lady receives from her selfish family in “The Trip to Bountiful.” But that hasn’t dissuaded helmer Michael Wilson from injecting some cheap chuckles into Horton Foote’s achingly sweet and sad 1953 play about two generations of Texans cut off from their rural roots. So while it’s really quite wonderful to see Cicely Tyson on stage, acting so cute and spry and spunky, it can’t be said that she does full justice to Mrs. Carrie Watts, one of the most memorable characters in the scribe’s enduring canon.
One of the themes that Horton Foote keeps returning to in his bittersweet plays is the primal need of human beings to maintain some connection with their ancestral roots. The nearer they draw to the grave, the stronger that atavistic tug pulling them back home.
Perhaps more than any other of his characters, Mrs. Watts (Tyson) hears that call to return to the place that nourished her for much of her life. Sensing that her time is near, she feels compelled to make one last trip to her family home in the town of Bountiful. Like the town itself, the house has long been abandoned. But if she could only take one last look at the fields from the front porch, smell the air and listen to the birds, she knows that she would come away with the courage to sustain her at the end of her earthly journey.
Too bad for her, the old lady is stuck living with her spineless son, Ludie (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), and his bossy wife, Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams), in a two-room apartment in Houston. The place is so cramped (in Jeff Cowie’s stifling set design), Jessie Mae has decreed that there be no hymn singing in the house or irritating talk about trips to Bountiful from her mother-in-law, who should just hand over her pension check and keep to her mouse hole.
Gooding, who is probably cast too old, has the sheepish look of a shamefaced boy who knows that he’s let down all the other kids on the team. That explains the ego-boosting pride he takes in his beautiful wife, but it limits the character’s poignancy as a dispirited middle-aged man who lacks the heart to stand up and assert himself because he knows that his whole life has been a failure.
Williams looks so gorgeous in Van Broughton Ramsey’s period costumes, she actually makes the insipid look of the 50s look good. And as diva of the house, she puts heart, soul, and teeth into badgering her poor mother-in-law into submission. But it’s such a broad take on Jessie Mae that it pushes the character into caricature and takes the early scenes of the play with her.
As old and fragile as she is, it would take a great force of will and an act of sheer desperation for Mrs. Watts to keep her pension check out of Jessie Mae’s claws and make her way to Bountiful. But a tone of desperation is last thing wanted in this production, which reaches for a lighter air of triumphant comic cleverness in the way that Mrs. Watts pulls off her coup.
The second act expands on this sitcom sensibility. The one that says: the kids may think they’re in charge around here, but foxy, lovable old Grandma will eventually get her way by charming the pants off everyone. But the change of venue also puts Tyson in the company of actors who know how to keep their characters from going over the edge.
In the process of making her perilous way to Bountiful, Mrs. Watts meets a young war bride played by Condola Rashad (as delightful in the role as she is adorable in a blue-and-white polkadot dress) who takes comfort in the old woman’s religious conviction and shows her the respect and concern she’s denied by her own family.
Mrs. Watts is also befriended by a kindly ticket agent at the bus station. It’s one of those small, perfectly etched cameo roles that Foote wrote with great care, and that Arthur French, a character actor who could give everybody lessons in that supportive art, plays with great affection.
The only time that re-casting the play for an African American cast runs into a snag is when a white Texas sheriff is put into the position of playing another of Mrs. Watts’ champions. (Would you believe a good ole boy sheriff chauffeuring an old black lady to an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere?) But Tom Wopat is such a sympathetic mensch in the role that he makes the unbelievable come true.