Carrie Watts, the cunning and elderly matriarch at the center of Horton Foote's TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL, is the ultimate in starring roles for an actress of a certain age. From Geraldine Page to Lois Smith, Mrs. Watts has been enlivened by veteran actresses who can play the role's unusual mixture of gentle and relentless.
So let's raise a glass to the producers of this latest Broadway revival, for bringing the magnificent Cicely Tyson into that cramped house in Houston, where BOUNTIFUL begins and which Mrs. Watts shares with her son, Ludie, and his hyper-anxious wife, Jessie Mae. Tyson, well into her advanced years, glides through the play with such a quirky and freewheeling spirit that she seems to shed the years as she goes.
It helps that Foote has given Mrs. Watts an objective both straightforward and familiar to American drama: she wants to go home. The only trouble is that her home (the play's namesake, Bountiful) may no longer exist, and in any case, it's unclear how to get there. That won't stop her from trying, though. Her living conditions in Houston are less than pleasant; Jessie Mae has barely concealed resentment toward her mother-in-law, and the feeling is mutual. Ludie's reluctant attempts to mediate between the women have fallen short, so daily life is filled with mundane battles about bedtimes, missing recipes, and whether Mrs. Watts sings her hymns too loud. Eventually, Carrie takes matters into her own hands, and armed only with a handbag and a pension check, she heads down to the bus station for her adventure home. Ludie and Jessie Mae soon catch on, and follow in pursuit.
Along the way, she meets Thelma, the wife of an overseas soldier, played peacefully by Condola Rashad. Thelma's going home too, and she helps Mrs. Watts find her bearings. Seated together on the bus, they compare stories from their lives, and the plain but devastating manner in which they both confront themes of discontentment and paralysis helps you realize why some refer to Foote as the "American Chekhov." (The bus scene also marks the best work from set designer Jeff Cowie.)
There's an emotional current missing here, though, and that has a lot to do with the supporting performances. As Ludie, Cuba Gooding Jr. slips in and out of different personas, ultimately settling in as an innocuous and likable husband, instead of the melancholy underachiever he seems in the script. Vanessa Williams, though lovely and full of charm, also seems wrong in the role of Ludie's wife. To put it in terms of another classic play revived this season, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF: as written, Jessie Mae is very much like, well, Mae--- Gooper's homely and agitated wife. But the gorgeous and fully-charged Williams is every inch a Maggie.
The production's truly novel element, of course, is its mostly African-American cast, and with the play set in the 1950s, a few attempts have been made by director Michael Wilson to emphasize its racial context. There's a colored waiting room and a white one, and most significantly, there's a white sheriff, played by the veteran Tom Wopat. A undeniable level of tension pervades the stage when the sheriff starts escorting Mrs. Watts around, as your mind turns to bus boycotts and a governor blocking a schoolhouse door.
This isn't distracting, really, but it's also not quite enough to save the production from a case of low stakes. Without a true sense of the desperation behind Carrie's trip, and the sadness of the life she's forced to return to, Foote's thoughtful meditation turns into a low-key story about a funny old lady. Tyson's work is probably worth the price of admission, but aside from her, a trip to this BOUNTIFUL is, sadly, an unnecessary one.