note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
It’s not surprising that spry,sprightly 81-year-old Cicely Tyson won the Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards in 2013 for her portrayal of Mother Carrie Watts in Horton Foote’s American masterpiece-Broadway hit, “The Trip to Bountiful”.
After a 30-year hiatus from Broadway, Miss Tyson is an inspiring, mesmerizing force. With a mere toss of her head, flick of her finger, wistful watch out the window, loving, endearing hug, her comic bent-over shuffle and triumphant little jump when nobody’s looking, she’s a magnificent, timeless work of art.
Her magnetic performance radiates to her brilliant touring co-stars: versatile, beautiful Vanessa Williams; handsome Blair Underwood; and charming Jurnee Smollett-Bell.
In a post-show talkback last week, Williams said the cast of 12, from iconic Miss Tyson to the ensemble and understudies, are one, big happy family. Their camaraderie on- and offstage emanates to appreciative audiences.
Although multi-award winning playwright Foote earned another Academy Award nomination for “Bountiful” as a film, (the play originally aired as a TV drama in 1953, was revived on Broadway, starring Tyson in 2013, and nominated for an Emmy this year for its Lifetime Television movie version), it isn’t revelatory.
Written originally about a white family, its multi-layered, homespun theme is all-inclusive, and this cast doesn’t let us forget it. It’s timeless, too, especially with today’s “sandwich society,” where middle-aged couples are forced to care for their elderly parents and relocate from dying small towns to get work.
Setting the stage with a pre-show, gritty, smalltown streetscape, Jeff Cowie’s rapidly-changing set enables theatergoers to simultaneously watch action on both sides of the stage, seamlessly transforming from the Watts‘ cramped, Houston apartment, two bus stations, and Mother Carrie’s ghost town homestead. Rui Rita’s lighting adds dramatic intensity.
Award-winning director, Michael Wilson, who helms this production and also directed the 2013 Broadway revival and TV Lifetime film version, has worked closely with Foote for 20 years. “The Trip to Bountiful” is a heart-tugger tale, of wanting desperately to return home, if only for one last time, yet being unable to do so. As Mother Carrie Watts, Miss Tyson wrings out every emotion. She sits wistfully in her rocking chair, looking out the window of the two-room Houston apartment she shares with her loving son, Ludie, (Blair Underwood) and his petulant, self-indulgent, demanding wife of 15 years, Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams). Mother Carrie’s gospel music and her singing hymns get on Jessie Mae’s nerves. She criticizes Mother Carrie’s every move. Jessie Mae isn’t all bad, though. She shows a glimmer of care toward the old lady, reminding her to stop running around the place, because of her heart condition and “sinking spells”.
But Carrie’s determined to return home, to her Bountiful Texas, rambling, ramshackle farm she left many years ago. Carrie reminisces alone, in her rocking chair, and with Ludie, their nostalgia loving. Finally left alone, Mother Carrie stuffs her check in her dress, grabs her packed bag, coat and hat, and heads for the Greyhound Bus Station (the waiting room subtly marked with an arrow pointing to the White Only Waiting Room). She befriends a sad young woman named Thelma, (Bell), whose husband left for military service overseas, and is moving back to her parents’ home.
Mother Carrie confesses to Thelma she didn’t love her husband. She once had a true love, but her father chased him off. The two women share a loving bond. “If my daughter had lived, she would have been like you,” Carrie tells Thelma.
Carrie ultimately gets home - proving it can happen - enlightening and delighting us all. Don’t miss this heartwarming theater treasure.
Also, be advised - Underwood won’t appear Nov. 26, and Williams, Dec. 6. You don’t want to miss them.
BOX INFO: Michael Wilson directs super stars Cecily Tyson, Vanessa Williams, and Blair Underwood, in Horton Foote’s two-act play, making its sole East Coast performance, through Dec. 7, at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont St., Boston: Nov. 26, Dec. 2-4, at 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 28,Dec. 5, at 8 p.m.; Nov. 29,Dec. 6, at 2,8 p.m.;Nov. 30,Dec. 7, at 2 p.m. Tickets, $25-$125; also, group, student, senior discounts. Visit www.artsemerson.org, call 617-824-8400