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At Ford’s Theatre, a director takes a return ‘Trip to Bountiful’

Michael Wilson, known for multiple interpretations of Horton Foote’s 1953 play, is back with a new version

From left: Kimberly Gilbert, Joe Mallon and Nancy Robinette in the Ford’s Theatre production of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful.” (Scott Suchman)

Michael Wilson was a student at the University of North Carolina in the mid-1980s when he visited his sister for a weekly movie night that proved to be anything but routine.

The selection that Friday evening was the 1985 film adaptation of Horton Foote’s 1953 play “The Trip to Bountiful.” The tale follows an elderly Houston woman with a desperate desire to return to her quaint hometown, but Wilson recalls that “every beat in the movie rang true” to his 22-year-old self. So in 1987, when Foote spoke at an event in Wilson’s hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C., the budding director approached his newfound idol with a query.

“I asked him, ‘Do you think I should go into television, film or theater?’ ” Wilson says. “Of course, it’s kind of a ridiculous question. How would he know? He doesn’t know me. And he said, ‘I can’t give you advice, but I can tell you that the work I’ve done in the theater has been, for me, more fulfilling.’ ”

Reflecting on that response from Foote, who died in 2009, Wilson adds: “Horton was one of the slyest, shrewdest writers and artists that I’ve known, and though he said he wasn’t answering, he gave an answer, right?”

That conversation was the start of a decades-long friendship between Foote, a celebrated dramatist known for writing 50-plus plays (and the screenplay for “To Kill a Mockingbird”), and Wilson, now recognized as the foremost interpreter of Foote’s work. After directing a 50th-anniversary production of “The Trip to Bountiful” at Houston’s Alley Theatre in 2003, staging a 2013 Broadway revival starring Cicely Tyson and helming a 2014 TV version, Wilson has returned to “Bountiful” once more — this time to direct a new production running through Oct. 16 at Ford’s Theatre.

“I was surprised that he came aboard, because he’s done it,” says Nancy Robinette, who plays the central role of Carrie Watts. “He just so fully understands the richness of the world of the play and the culture of the play, and the potential in the play to bring out empathy.”

Robinette wasn’t alone in thinking that Wilson wouldn’t be interested; the director also figured his 2014 visit to “Bountiful” was his final one. To sum up his thinking at the time, he quotes a line from Mrs. Watts: “I’ve had my trip. That’s more than enough to keep me happy the rest of my life.”

But when Robinette and Ford’s Theatre Director Paul R. Tetreault — who, as managing director at the Alley, had worked on the 2003 staging of “Bountiful” — approached Wilson about revisiting the play, he embraced the idea. With his mother now in her mid-80s, Wilson says he relates to the character of Ludie, Mrs. Watts’s protective son, in newfound ways. Although the production was originally planned for a 2020 run, he believes “Bountiful” and its themes of longing for a time gone by are all the more compelling amid the pandemic.

“It’s been a solace for me, at this moment, to be working on the play,” Wilson says. “Now, my life situation has helped inform how I can help the actors get inside these characters.”

To avoid re-creating or echoing his previous work, Wilson says he isn’t using his Broadway prompt book — a master script complete with technical cues and actors’ blocking — and decided not to re-watch archival footage of that production or his TV movie. Rui Rita, the lighting designer on the new production, is a veteran of the Broadway run, but Tim Mackabee’s set and Ivania Stack’s mid-century costumes come from fresh perspectives.

The actors bring new insights as well. Robinette, a D.C. theater luminary with four decades of experience on area stages, is joined by local favorites Joe Mallon as Ludie and Kimberly Gilbert as Jessie Mae, Carrie’s overbearing daughter-in-law. Explaining that the three most important words to a director are “I don’t know,” Wilson says he made a conscious effort in the rehearsal hall to let his cast explore their characters and not overshare his own experience with the play.

“He has a wonderful energy and keeps us on our toes, and he seems to enjoy the new things we bring to the play,” Robinette says. “So that’s a nice combination, to have someone who has worked on it, knows it and is still looking for it himself. He’s discovering it anew with us, and that’s kind of thrilling.”

“The Trip to Bountiful” isn’t the only Foote project on Wilson’s plate: He’s working on a stage musical based on Foote’s Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1983 film “Tender Mercies,” with a book by Daisy Foote, the playwright’s daughter, and music by Steve Earle. Wilson also hints that he’d love to adapt the Orphans’ Home Cycle — a trilogy of Foote’s plays that he directed off-Broadway in 2009 and 2010 — for television.

But first: a detour back to “Bountiful,” 35 years after that fateful interaction with Foote in Winston-Salem.

“I had no idea then, in 1987, not only that most of my life would be artistically, professionally and personally defined by my relationship with this writer, but also with this particular piece,” Wilson says. “ ‘The Trip to Bountiful’ is going to be here for a long time to come, and it has truly turned out to be one of Horton Foote’s deserving lasting legacies.”

If you go

The Trip to Bountiful

Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St NW. 202-347-4833.

Dates: Through Oct. 16.

Prices: $24-$54.