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A CurtainUp Review
The Trip to Bountiful

The passing of time makes me sad. --- Jessie Mae, who nevertheless is not sentimental enough about about the changes brought by the passing of time to ask her mother-in-law to stop constantly singing hymns which she declares are "going out of style."

Lois Smith in Trip to Bountiful
Lois Smith (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The beautiful new production of The Trip to Bountiful brings together two of the theater world's treasures -- playwright Horton Foote and the Signature Theatre Company. Foote's Mrs. Carrie Watts' has traveled to Bountiful, a small town on the Texas gulf coast on television, stage and screen. Each trip has afforded wonderful acting opportunities for the actress playing Carrie -- as well as the actors playing her son Ludie, her daughter-in-law Jessie Mae and the various people she encounters on her desperate journey towards Bountiful and the by-gone pleasures and regrets of her youth. The current revival is no exception.

Lois Smith is a solid gold, multi-dimensional Carrie Watts, at once heart-wrenchingly frail yet cunningly willful. Foote's best known interpreter, his daughter Hallie Foote, nails both the basic decency and the teeth-clenching awfulness of the self-absorbed Jessie Mae. Devon Abner is terrific as the husband caught between the two women. Harris Yulin, as able a director as he is an actor, has elicited equally praiseworthy performances from the subsidiary role players.

The play, though oozing with the atmosphere of the early 1950s, is remarkably timely in its rumination on changes beyond the control of ordinary people. It is a fitting opener for the Signature's fifteenth season -- continuing its invaluable mission of paying in-depth tributes to major contemporary playwrights with yet another groundbreaking initiative, a $15 ticket price for all performances. Truly the biggest and best theatrical bargain to be found anywhere in the Big Apple!

Typical of Foote's plays, The Trip to Bountiful is a quiet, leisurely paced story that's more character than plot driven. It revolves around Carrie Watt's escape from the three-room Houston apartment she shares with her son Ludie and daughter-in-law Jessie Mae. There are no grandchildren to make life with a daughter-in-law who barely tolerates her less dismal and tense. Money is tight and Carrie's social security check is much needed as Ludie has only recently started working again after losing his job during an unspecified two-year illness. Since Bountiful has become a ghost town, Jessie Mae and Ludie, not unreasonably, view Carrie's plans to return there as an old woman's pipe dream. After a scene that establishes the unhappy family dynamic, Carrie does manage to make her getaway and by the time she's boarded the bus, she's made a new friend, a young army wife named Thelma (played by Meghan Andrews with terrific sensitivity and charm). Fine actress that she is, Smith's Carrie, buoyed by her escape and Thelma's kindness and understanding, becomes visibly stronger and more alive. Though the trip is doomed by the family's police alert, the sheriff (Jim Demarse) who tracks her down at the bus station 12 miles from Bountiful again exemplifes Foote's penchant for kindly strangers. He takes her to her old home which though reduced to a barely standingshack, serves its purpose of bringing Carrie's journey to a bittersweet conclusion.

The speech of these characters, like those who populate most of Foote's work, reflects the Southern Texas locale that has been his inspirational wellspring, but the circumstances in which they find themselves and to which they must adapt are universal. Carrie's memories of the Watt 375-acre farm and her need to finally sell off all but the house in order to educate her son are more relevant than ever with more and more families in small communities like Bountiful and Harrison (Foote's stand-in for his native Wharton) forced to change their way of life.

While Foote himself has adapted to living in New York which has its own sort of constantly changing landscape, he has maintained his hold on his Texas roots as a writer and never become too cynical to include kindly strangers like Thelma and the sheriff.

Thus, while Bountiful may be seen as a sociological play about modern ways overtaking more simple country life styles (e.g. Jessie Mae's preference to the songs on the radio over the "out of style" hymns her mother-in-law keeps singing to herself), the low key story telling and three-dimensional characterizations expand not only the play's geographic canvas but its thematic scope. Hattie is not some daffy, forgetful old lady hankering for an unrecoverable past but a canny survivor who is able to accept the compromise involved in fulfilling her wish to return to her past of past losses and happy memories

Set designer E. David Cosier's sliding sets effortlessly take us to four different locations -- the Houston apartment with its true to the period wooden furniture, the bus stations in Houston and Harrison, and the abandoned shack and yard of Carrie's one-time Bountiful home. As the apartment walls are papered with floral prints, so prints dominate Martin Pakledinaz's equally apt costumes. The scenic wizardly stop short of bringing a bus on stage, but no matter, John McKernon's lighting design evokes a believable image of Carrie and Thelma's ride to Harrison.

Whether you saw The Trip to Bountiful in one of its previous permutations or come to it as a newbie, you'll find this production a trip worth taking. The $15 price (a partnership with Time Warner), continues throughout its run and for the rest of the 15th anniversary season which will include John Guare's Landscape of the Body and three plays by August Wilson (3 guitars, King Hedley II, Two Trains Running).

The Beginning of Summer
The Carpetbagger's Children
The Carpetbagger's Children in LA
The Day Emily Married
The Habitation of Dragons
The Last of the Thorntons
Roads to Home
The Young Man From Atlanta

Playwright: Horton Foote
Directed by Harris Yulin
Cast: Lois Smith as Carrie Watts and Hallie Foote as Jessie Mae Watts; also Devon Abner as Ludie, Meghan Andrews as Thelma, Jim Demares as Sheriff, Gene Jones as Houston Ticket Man #1, Sam Kitchin as Houston Ticket Man #2, Frank Girardeau as Harrison Ticket Man .
Set Design: E. David Cosier
Costume Design: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting Design: John McKernon
Original Music and Sound Design: Brett R. Jarvis & Loren Toolajian; additional music and sound design by Fitz Patton & Harris Skibell
Running time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, without intermission
Peter Norton Space, 555 W. 42nd Street (10th/ 11th Avenues) 212/244-7529
From 1/15/05 to 1/08/06--extended for an unprecedented 6 week to 2/16/06--plus another extension to 3/11/06; opening 12/04/05
All tickets $15
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 3rd press performance

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