Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Road to Bountiful"

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note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Carl A. Rossi


"THE ROAD TO BOUNTIFUL"

by Horton Foote
directed by Pauline Wright

Carrie Watts … Georgette Beck
Ludie Watts … Stephen Cooper
Jessie Mae Watts … Maureen Bucell
Thelma … Amy Courage
Ticket Agent 1 … Barbara Lasovick
Ticket Agent 2 … Joy Kasmer
Roy … Jim Robinson
Sheriff … John Archer

In 1954, the late John Chapman, drama critic for the New York Daily News, wrote an article for THEATRE ARTS entitled “Cherry Pie is No Substitute for Meat and Potatoes” and blamed Mr. Chekhov for ruining the American theatre. Before, there were “meat and potatoes” playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill, Sherwood Anderson, Sidney Howard, Robert Sherwood, Elmer Rice, Phillip Barry, etc., whose plays had “vigor, passion and event”. The “cherry pie” playwrights, taking their cue from THE CHERRY ORCHARD, wrote mood-pieces where little seemed to happen, onstage: Mr. Williams’ THE GLASS MENAGERIE was one of the first and successful ones; Ms. McCullers’ THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING and Mr. Inge’s canon, are others. But similar plays died swift deaths at the time --- one such failure was Horton Foote’s THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL, where Carrie Watts, an old Texan woman, flees a stifling two-room existence with her son Ludie and his wife Jessie Mae to return to her childhood home only to face some rude awakenings, there. That is BOUNTIFUL’s plot in a nutshell and, no doubt, many a bottom squirmed in its seat during its original Broadway run (39 performances); mood plays have since run rampant and, of course, smaller casts and simpler mise en scenes make for happy producers. BOUNTIFUL’s subtle power lies more in Cassie’s flight and journey than her arrival (in that long first act, it’s not what Jessie Mae bitches about; the piling up of her bitchery that forces Carrie to flee is what’s important). An O’Neill would have written a battle of Junos --- Mr. Foote has Carrie absorb and absorb and absorb the verbal abuse until finally now, NOW is the time for the old woman to leave. Reading BOUNTIFUL as literature can be tedious; onstage, it becomes a woman’s death-in-life, her temporary rebirth, and her transcendence over her lot --- and an old-fashioned vehicle for a senior character actress (if written, today, Cassie and Jesse Mae would be Southern wackos played as farce).

The Mugford Street Players has a few performances left of its simple, homey production where Georgette Beck is a magical Cassie. Ms. Beck is such a layered actress, by now, that she only has to pick a dab or two from a rich emotional palette to give out shocks of recognition. In short, Ms. Beck has presence --- a warm, endearing one, though she was a terror as another kind of mother in THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENAN, several years ago. (The late Lillian Gish, once compared to an angel on a Christmas tree, created the role of Cassie and, indeed, the thought of Ms. Gish’s Cassie holding out warm milk to Ludie would seem like a holy communion; Ms. Beck’s Cassie would not only warm the milk but make biscuits to go with it.) Have you ever seen an actor or actress, onstage, who reminded you of someone whom you hadn’t? Ms. Beck’s Cassie convinces me that this is what Laurette Taylor’s Amanda Wingfield must have been like in 1945 --- those flickering swings between fragility and stoicism; the stepped-on decency and kindness (listen to her various tones of “yes, ma’am”, alone, to convey her thoughts); the sudden and heartrending collapse into a childish crying jag (infants and seniors open and close the circle, you see); all of this Ms. Taylor must have brought to her Williams portrayal. I hope these praises will make Ms. Beck’s day; she certainly made my evening.

The community feeling among North Shore theatre folk adds immeasurably to the small-town atmosphere of Mr. Foote’s world, and Ms. Beck is thrice blessed, here. On one level, Ludie must act as buffer between Cassie and Jessie Mae; on another, the role is a supporting actor for two lead actresses --- to Steve Cooper’s credit, he convinces on the first level and sensitively hides the second one. Maureen Bucell makes a sympathetic bitch out of Jessie Mae without diluting her --- Hedda Gabler in a beauty salon --- you may not like the character but can see where she’s coming from, and forgive me for conjuring up Brecht, again, but Ms. Bucell is giving a Brechtian performance. “Brechtian” in the sense that, to quote Mr. B., himself: “Each scene, and each section within a scene, must be perfected and played as rigorously and with as much discipline as if it were a short play, complete in itself. Without any smudges. And without there being the slightest suggestion that another scene, or section within a scene, is to follow those that have gone before.” Ms. Bucell plays Jessie Mae’s kaleidoscopic emotions as miniature scenes in themselves --- and what a cunning orchestrator Mr. Foote is, too! --- rather than resulting in a camp caricature of a nagging wife, this bee buzzes around and around Ms. Beck’s horns --- swat swat swat --- since she will not buzz off, the old cow leaves, instead. The proof of Ms. Bucell’s performance lies in her stage absence; every time her name is mentioned, it becomes a gong in the midst of a chamber piece. Amy Courage’s Thelma, Cassie’s surrogate daughter on the bus, is a fascinating contrast of how the Method or whatever acting technique is used nowadays to link Thelma’s clearwater-thoughts, one by one, as matching beads on a string without becoming tedious or stillborn --- just as Ms. Bucell brings out Ms. Beck’s combative side, Ms. Courage inspires Ms. Beck to expand and youthen for her Act Two arias. Not only does Ms. Courage convincingly play in period but she is a fine listener, too: her reactions become the audience’s, and vice versa. Acting as reacting.

Pauline Wright has directed with a seasoned hand --- a BOUNTIFUL bus driver who knows when to keep both hands on the wheel for potholes and when to relax her grip when smooth, open road stretches far into the distance………. Should you attend this production? Yes, ma’am.

"The Road to Bountiful" (6 - 22 November)
MUGFORD STREET PLAYERS
The Firehouse Theatre, 12 School Street, MARBLEHEAD, MA
1 (781) 631-9106

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