You’ll want to take this ‘Trip to Bountiful’ at Round House Theatre
By Celia Wren
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Humming is not, ordinarily, an exciting human activity. But there’s something thrilling in the crooning hymn tune that opens the luminous production of “The Trip to Bountiful” now at Round House Theatre in Bethesda. When the lights go up on director Timothy Douglas’s rendition of Horton Foote’s 1953 play, we see a tidy living room where an elderly woman sits in a rocking chair that dwarfs her tiny frame. She’s not doing much: just humming and rocking. But there’s something about her resolute, wordless melodizing — about the jut of her chin, and the mix of toughness and resignation in her expression — that makes the tableau far from humdrum.
Already in this initial moment, it’s obvious that actress Lizan Mitchell is the dynamo powering this staging, billed as the first “Trip to Bountiful” to feature a primarily African American cast. Not that the rest of the show (co-produced by the Cleveland Play House, which mounted it earlier this year) is anything to sneeze at, either. Affecting, fluid and deftly paced, it showcases a sterling cast of supporting actors who capture their characters’ idiosyncrasies and connections while allowing the play’s broader themes — the human yearning for rootedness and peace, the essential sadness of living in time — to resonate.
Familiar to many from a 1985 film version that starred Geraldine Page, “The Trip to Bountiful” centers on Carrie Watts (Mitchell), an elderly woman living with family in a confined Houston apartment in the 1940s. Mrs. Watts pines for her home town of Bountiful, and she’s determined to revisit the place, despite the objections of her harried son Ludie (Howard W. Overshown) and her thoughtless daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (Chinai J. Hardy). One day when the young folks are out — Jessie Mae, as usual, is at the drugstore, drinking Coke — the spunky widow makes a getaway.
Intimations of mortality whisper around the tale’s contours — Mrs. Watts suffers from heart trouble — but there’s nothing gloomy about the old lady’s whole tale as conjured up by Mitchell. The actress coasts expertly through the layers of Mrs. Watts’s moods and intentions, revealing depths of frailty and pain but also strength, dignity and stubbornness. The face of the aging Bountiful native crinkles with hurt when Ludie demands she deliver a humiliating apology to Jessie Mae after a petty spat. And pain seems to seize her when she remembers losses from her past. But at other times she radiates wiliness (cunningly hiding her pension check under the carpet) or buoyant affection (tapping out a song rhythm on her son’s head and shoulders).
Overshown brings the right air of careworn bewilderment to Ludie, and Hardy manages to pack some humanity into Jessie Mae, who is written as a near caricature. Director Douglas’s shrewd orchestration of the play’s first scene helps: When Jessie Mae sinks onto her bed in distress, or lays her head lovingly on her husband’s shoulder, she gains a dimension or two. (Toni-Leslie James’s atmospheric period costumes include outfits that Hardy wears with flair.)
Jessica Frances Dukes turns in a beautiful performance as Thelma, the anxious young wife whom Mrs. Watts befriends on a bus. In a director’s note in the playbill, Douglas observes that, as African Americans in the pre-civil-rights South, the women would be seated at the back of the bus. But here, as elsewhere in the production, the reverberations of the nontraditional casting strategy are subtle. (For one thing, Mrs. Watts and Thelma are so deep in conversation on the bus that they — and, therefore, we — hardly notice their surroundings.) The issue of race does add tension, and poignancy, to Mrs. Watts’s encounter with a small-town sheriff (Lawrence Redmond), who is white.
With exuberant country birds and screeching city cars, sound designer James C. Swonger helps ratchet up the contrast between the country and the restless angst-ridden city. Striking a similar note, scenic designer Tony Cisek sets his naturalistic Houston apartment, and his more impressionistic bus station and Texas countryside, against a blue quiltlike background, which seems to underscore Mrs. Watts’s nostalgia and all the characters’ longing for comfort and rest. Don’t we all crave a trip to Bountiful?
By Horton Foote. Directed by Timothy Douglas; lighting design, Christopher Studley. With Doug Brown. About two hours.