Cicely Tyson has come home.
As Carrie Watts, the old woman in Horton Foote’s heartbreaking play “The Trip To Bountiful,” she had been stuck all day every day with her hectoring daughter-in-law in a cramped apartment in Houston. But now, having snuck out of the apartment and taken the long bus trip back to her hometown, she stands before the house where she was raised. It may be rundown now, closed up, an empty place as full of disappointments as it once was full of hopes — but it is the place where she feels she belongs.
Cicely Tyson has returned home, too, for her eighth Broadway role after an absence of 30 years. It is as a screen actress that she became famous, for her roles in “Roots” and “Sounder” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” But it was on the stage where Cicely Tyson first made a name for herself as a performer – most notably in Jean Genet’s “The Blacks” Off-Broadway.
At age 88, she has taken on a part first portrayed on the stage by Lillian Gish (then just 60), in a performance in 1953 that the critic Brooks Atkinson called “a triumph of skill and spirit.” That seems exactly right for Cicely Tyson as well. Hers is a vibrant performance – very far from the arthritic old maid she portrayed in the 2011 film “The Help” – and a fresh interpretation that diverges from that of Geraldine Page, who won an Oscar for the 1985 film version, and Lois Smith, who received much praise in the 2005 production at the Signature Theater.
This Mrs. Watts has not just lost her place in the world; she is also someone who is worldly by nature, amused by the absurdities of the world in which she lives: She smiles to herself when her daughter-in-law Jessie Mae admonishes her for breaking the rules of the house. Her trip is not just a geographic one; it seems to open herself up to her own happiness; she winds up not bitter, but beatific.
Having Vanessa Williams portray Jessie Mae is the second smart casting choice of this production. William is unafraid to play a self-absorbed woman, which she does credibly and to great effect. Her beauty makes sense for the role, explaining her frequent visits to the beauty parlor and adding an extra reason for her husband Ludie’s willingness to put up with her complaining: He is not just a person with an almost preternaturally equable disposition. There is an enjoyable moment when Ludie, recalling his proposal to her 15 years earlier, says he thought she was “the prettiest girl” and she replies: “Did you, Ludie? I guess I did have my good features.” With previous actresses, this came off as something close to modesty; here it reads as false modesty, and is spot-on for the character.
It is a testament to his skills as a director that Michael Wilson — who helmed one of my all-time favorite productions, Horton Foote’s three-part Orphan’s Home Cycle at the Signature — has created an ensemble of persuasively plain everyday characters out of an A list cast that also includes movie star Cuba Gooding Jr., and TV star (and now Broadway veteran) Tom Wopat, as well as Condola Rashad, who is rapidly herself becoming theater royalty. Also worth mentioning is long-time Broadway veteran Arthur French in a just-right performance as the attendant in the Harrison, Texas bus station. Only Gooding seems to need more time to settle into his role, cutting down on some mannerisms and extraneous business, and building more effectively to an explosion in Act II that should be seen as more climactic in this low-key play.
Wilson also understands the challenge of presenting such an intimate play in a theater as large as the Stephen Sondheim (where, in its earlier, smaller incarnation as the Henry Miller Theater, the play opened for a short run 60 years ago.) Part of his solution is to fill it with a large cast, 14 people, most of whom do little more than fill out the crowd at the bus station. Scenic designer Jeff Cowie creates not just the interior of the Houston apartment, but the exterior of the rest of the building, almost as if it weighs down the Watts home – cleverly emphasizing how cramped the quarters.
Cowie’s Houston bus station includes a sign that says “Whites Only Waiting Room This Way” – a subtle acknowledgement of the play’s time and place. There is also a change in Jessie Mae’s line. In the current production, she responds to Ludie’s compliments about her looks with the lines: “People used to tell me I looked like a cross between Rita Hayworth and Lena Horne.” In the original script, the line is:“People used to tell me I look like a cross between Joan Crawford and Clara Bow.”
These are among the few concessions to what could be called the non-traditional casting of this production of “A Trip to Bountiful.” But it actually feels fully traditional – a tradition of quality.
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The Trip to Bountiful
At The Stephen Sondheim Theater
Written by Horton Foote
Directed by Michael Wilson
Scenic design by Jeff Cowie, costume design by Van Broughton Ramsey, lighting design by Rui Rita, original music and sound design by
Cast: Cicely Tyson, Cuba Gooding Jr, Vanessa Williams, Condola Rashad, Tom Wopat, Devon Abner, Curtis Billings, Pat Bowie, Leon Addison Brown, Arthur French, Susan Heyward, Bill Kux, Linda Powell, Charles Turner
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, which includes one 15-minute intermission
Theater tickets: $37 – $142
“The Trip to Bountiful” is scheduled to close July 7, 2013
Update: The Trip to Bountiful has been extended until October 9, 2013