BWW REVIEW: Cicely Tyson Makes a Joyful Noise in THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL
Written by Horton Foote; presented by ArtsEmerson The World on Stage and Jonathan Reinis Productions in association with Center Theatre Group; directed by Michael Wilson; scenic design, Jeff Cowie; costume design, van Broughton Ramsey; lighting design, Rui Rita; original music and sound design, John Gromada; hair design, Paul Huntley; make-up design, Angelina Avallone; production stage manager, Robert Bennett
Cast in Order of Appearance:
Mrs. Carrie Watts, Cicely Tyson; Ludie Watts, Blair Underwood; Jessie Mae Watts, Vanessa Williams; Thelma, Jurnee Smollett-Bell; Houston Ticket Agent, Devon Abner; Second Houston Ticket Agent, Wade Dooley; Roy, Arthur French; Sheriff, Devon Abner; Travelers and Houston Bus Station Employees, Pat Bowie, Russell Edge, Dalila Ali Rajah, Keiana Richard, Duane Shepard, Sr. and Desean Kevin Terry
Performances and Tickets:
Now through December 7, ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage, Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre, 221 Tremont Street, Boston, Mass.; tickets range from $25 to $125 and are available online at www.artsemerson.org or by calling the Box Office at 617-824-8400.Horton Foote's THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL is an enduring piece of 1950s Americana that tugs at the heartstrings with simple elegance. Free of modern-day cynicism or amped up pyrotechnics, this poignant telling of one woman's struggle to return home before she dies quietly burns with the fire of dreams and desires thwarted by the realities of a hardscrabble life.
Making the production now at Boston's Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre through December 7 a must-see event is the career-capping performance by the legendary Cicely Tyson as Mrs. Carrie Watts. Reprising the role that earned her a Tony Award on Broadway in 2013, Tyson redefines the character made famous on screen by Geraldine Page. Older and frailer than Page, and African American, Tyson conveys an indomitable spiritual center that refuses to be extinguished despite the 20 years of suffocation she has endured living with her son and daughter-in-law in a two-room tenement apartment in Houston. It's this rock-solid core of faith and memories that propels Tyson's Carrie to break free, hopping an overnight bus to her hometown of Bountiful so that she can sit on her porch, breathe the fresh Gulf air, and hear her beloved scissor tails sing one last time.
Tyson infuses her Carrie with an impish sense of humor and razor-sharp wit that reveals the girlish backbone that once enabled her to raise her son and work her drought-stricken cotton farm on her own for many years. Now confined and controlled by the world-weary Ludie (Blair Underwood) and over-bearing Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams), Carrie fights to keep her flame from flickering out altogether. A return home will be her salvation. She doesn't just want to take a trip to Bountiful. She needs to make the journey to preserve her dignity and will.
Originally written with a white family in mind, THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL takes on an added layer of meaning as performed by this exceptional African American cast. Given the limited opportunities available to this pre-Civil Rights Watts family, the stakes of dreaming are much higher and the disappointments more profound - as are the risks of confronting one's employer or challenging the authority of the law.
As the feisty but forgetful Carrie who single-mindedly maneuvers her way onto the bus to Bountiful, Tyson is a cauldron of measured anticipation. At home under the ever watchful eyes of her son and especially her suspicious daughter-in-law, she plots, defers and cajoles until she manages her escape. While on the road she mixes equal parts worry and hope as she draws nearer and nearer to her destination. When she finally reaches the last bus stop just 12 miles away from her childhood home, she erupts into spiritual song, freely singing the hymns that an irritated Jessie Mae has forbidden for the past 20 years. It's a moment of glorious reawakening for Carrie. She is once again able to express the bountiful joys inside of her and be the woman she was born to be.
Her celebration is short-lived, however, when the local sheriff arrives to detain her. Ludie has been in touch with the authorities and is on his way from Houston to retrieve her. In this moment Tyson leaves nothing on the table. It is clear that if she doesn't get to Bountiful her heart will die from disappointment. She has just 12 miles left to go, but it might as well be an eternity.
In contrast to Tyson's vivacious determination, Blair Underwood doesn't allow his hard-working Ludie the luxury of letting go. Wanting nothing more than to protect and provide for his family, he tempers his passions with a pragmatic restraint. When he considers the pivotal decision of whether or not to ask for a well-deserved raise, the conflict between pride and fear is etched deeply in the furrows of his brow. His is an aching portrayal, one that delivers a man whose aspirations and love have been all but crushed by the weight of the era he was born into. Underwood's Ludie takes on life's shortcomings as if they are his own personal failure. He wants so much more for his wife and mother than circumstances will ever allow him to give.
Ludie needn't worry about Jessie Mae, however. She's a formidable character whose constant complaining is a time-worn survival tool. In Vanessa Williams' capable hands, though, Jessie Mae is so much more than a comic harpy. Williams transcends the caricature and reveals the stunted dreams that she too harbors beneath her self-absorbed exterior. While she may seem obsessed with beauty and fashion magazines, her airs are more than just a vain wife's desire to seem sophisticated. Williams' Jessie Mae latches onto the celebrity "good life" as a way to cope with her claustrophobic day-to-day and frustrating hand-to-mouth existence. Her selfish veneer is as thin as the polish on her carefully manicured nails. When push comes to shove, she supports her husband and by default, his mother, too.
Standouts in the supporting cast include Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Carrie's adopted travel companion Thelma, a newlywed heading home to her parents when her husband ships off to the Army, and Arthur French as Roy, the elderly bus depot attendant who befriends Carrie during her overnight stay at his station. Devon Abner is also suitably stern yet kind as the Sheriff called in to detain her.
Jeff Cowie's scenic design evokes the cramped quarters of a Houston tenement, the Spartan furnishings of a remote rural bus depot, and the ghostlike remnants of a long-abandoned farmhouse overlooking cotton fields gone to dust. Van Broughton Ramsey's period costumes and Paul Huntley's gently curled wigs fix the time in the early 1950s and suggest both the everyday world and Sunday-go-to-meeting ways of the working class faithful. The moody lighting and sound of Rui Rita and John Gromada, respectively, add tenderness and pathos in just the right measure.
On its own THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL is a delicate, graceful and uplifting memory play that takes its audience along with Carrie on her spiritual journey to find freedom, dignity, identity and peace. With Cicely Tyson on board, however, it becomes an experience for the ages. Giving her remarkable voice to the play's insistent song, Tyson makes this TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL a joyful noise. And we are all the richer for having heard it.
PHOTOS BY CRAIG SHWARTZ: Cicely Tyson as Carrie Watts, Blair Underwood as Ludie Watts and Vanessa Williams as Jessie Mae Watts; Blair Underwood and Vanessa Williams; Cicely Tyson, Arthur French as Roy and Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Thelma