Review: THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL at Holden Street Theatres

A different kind of road trip.

By: May. 24, 2024
Review: THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL at Holden Street Theatres
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Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Thursday 23rd May 2024.

Multi award-winning group, Red Phoenix Theatre, the resident theatre company at Holden Street Theatres, produced Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate in 2019, and now they are presenting another of his works, from 1953, The Trip to Bountiful, directed by Libby Drake. Continuing the company’s mission, this is another play that has never been performed in Adelaide. No doubt it will, as with past productions, sell out the season. Opening night was announced as sold out well in advance.

Libby Drake has assembled and very fine group of players for this production, and has brought out all of the pathos in an emotion-filled production.

Carrie Watts lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Houston, Texas, sharing it with her son, Ludie, and daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae. She has been there for many years, and hates the city, missing her rural childhood home. Carrie has a heart condition, and she wants to make the journey to her hometown, Bountiful, while there is still time.

Ludie means well, but is under the thumb of his wife, Jessie Mae, who is unemployed, self-centred, lazy, argumentative, and who expects Carrie to hand over her pension cheques to pay for her trips to the beauty parlour. The latest pension cheque is late, and Jessie Mae is suspicious. Carrie is treated like a maid, expected to do all the housework. Ludie is hoping for an increase in his salary, having been back in the workforce for six months after two years without work, through illness.

When Jessie Mae goes to meet her friend Rosella at the drug store, Carrie grabs the pension cheque that she had kept hidden, and makes her getaway, immediately running into obstacles. The train no longer runs to Bountiful and the bus only runs to two other towns in the vicinity. Ludie and Jessie Mae chase after her, but she gives them the slip and boards the bus. She has been trying to get away for years, but they usually catch her before she even gets to the bus station. At the station, she meets a young woman, Thelma, who travels with her as far as Harrison, just twelve miles from Bountiful.

The Harrison sheriff informs Carrie that Ludie has set out in a car to take her back to Houston. She collapses and a doctor is called. The sheriff takes pity on her and drives her to Bountiful to see her old hometown and the house in which she grew up, in the couple of hours before Ludie arrives. The town is deserted and all of the buildings derelict, but she gets that one last chance to see what remains of her old house and to reminisce with the sheriff, before Ludie arrives to take her back to Houston. It is a bittersweet reunion. Jessie Mae sets down ground rules, to which Carrie agrees, and they all get into the car to leave, hoping for improved relationships in what little time Carrie has left.

That might not sound like a particularly exciting plot, but that is not what this play is about. It is a wonderful character study, explored through a series of interactions between Carrie and the people whom she meets in transit. Some in the audience were brought to tears in places.

Sharon Malujlo takes on the central role of Carrie Watts, and I am certain that nobody who has seen her previous performances will be at all surprised to learn that she comes up trumps, yet again. She gives a remarkable performance as Carrie, sweeping the audience along in her quest for what, to most people would seem a small request. To most people, it would be inconceivable that one would deny their mother a simple request, such as a drive to see where she was born and grew up, and it was clear that, with Malujlo’s moving performance, the audience sympathised and supported her in her journey.

Leighton Vogt plays Carrie’s son, Ludie, and his overbearing wife, Jessie Mae, is played by Krystal Cave. They are a wonderful pairing, each creating a very believable character, and adding interactions that convince us of a couple who have been together a long time, her demanding, and him giving in to her demands for a quiet life, even if it means putting his mother second. When Malujlo’s Carrie is also involved, the dynamics between husband and wife, and between the three of them, change as the balance shifts to and fro.

There’s an old theatrical saying that “there are no small parts, only small actors.” Two of Adelaide’s best-known, highly-regarded, and busiest actor/directors were willing to fill two roles that have only a handful of lines: Brian Godfrey, as the Houston ticket agent #1, and Megan Dansie, as ticket agent #2. It says a lot about the reputation of Red Phoenix that such people can be attracted for just a couple of minutes onstage. Godfrey and Dansie are a good example to some folk whose egos leave them turning down anything but major roles.

Laura Antoniazzi showed promise in her early roles and has fulfilled that promise, learning much through working under the guidance of some of our best directors and alongside very experienced performers. As the young wife, Thelma, she gives a beautifully nuanced performance. Her portrayal brings out all of the sadness at the separation from, and fear for the safety of her husband, who has been posted overseas, coupled with her concern for Carrie.
Stuart Pearce, whom I last saw playing Captain Hook, plays Roy, the very helpful agent at the Harrison bus station. He gives a thoughtful reading of the role, presenting Roy as a real gentleman, showing respect for Carrie, and offering her care. We see a sympathetic Roy who understands her nostalgic trip home, and Pearce shows his character as genuinely saddened when it seems that she might not make it those last few miles.

Ron Hoenig, as the Harrison sheriff, is initially very businesslike, informing Carrie that Ludie is coming for her and that she is to stay put, and telling Roy to keep her there. Hoenig neatly negotiates the transition to the sheriff’s softer side when Carrie explains her deeply felt, desperate need to revisit her hometown one last time, and becomes more human, taking her to Bountiful, and spending time with her as she remembers her past.

The main venue at Holden Street Theatres was originally a large, bare hall, reflecting its former life as a church. Tiered seating was added, looking down onto the stage area, which has a door on either side at the rear. With no wings or fly gallery, Red Phoenix, and other company’s sets, are usually minimal, but imaginatively created, so Kate Prescott’s much more elaborate design for this production caught regular audiences by surprise.

Richard Parkhill, as usual, is the lighting designer, and the set gives him scope for some very varied lighting changes, from interiors, either dimly or well-lit, and exteriors, at night and in daylight. Lisa Lanzi’s costumes also add to the authenticity of the appearance of the characters. Anne-Louise Smith has ensured that the hairstyles suit both the era and the characters.

This is another big winner for Red Phoenix, and booking tickets quickly is recommended if you don’t want to miss out.

Photography, Richard Parkhill.


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