With the problems still brewing in Ferguson, this revival Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful” with three black actors in the lead roles is a pleasant fairytale. We’d like to think that in the 1940s a gutsy little old lady like Cicely Tyson’s Mrs. Watts would receive nothing but kindness in her trip from Houston to the small town she grew up in, Bountiful, Texas.
Is this wistful thinking or re-writing history. There were colored waiting rooms in Texas until 1964. If you can believe this dream, this pleasant myth of color-blind Texas in the 1940s, then you will be swept away with nostalgia. People are sitting and waiting. They aren’t taking selfies or taking photos of sleeping people to hold up to ridicule on some Facebook account. People are talking to each other.
Mrs. Watts (Tyson) is determined to visit her hometown of Bountiful just one more time. She isn’t getting any younger and her daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams), is more concerned about new dresses, going to have her hair done and going out for some fun. Her husband, Ludie (Blair Underwood), tries to keep the peace.
Jeff Cowie’s set design shows cramped quarters in a one-bedroom apartment. The neighbor upstairs complain about the radio when it gets too loud. We don’t see the neighbors, but we do see several windows above the Watts’ apartment and they seem to squish together.
When Mrs. Watts talks about Bountiful you sense a certain serenity. She has a girlhood friend who she’s been writing to for ages and she wants to visit her. Mrs. Watts may not be able to out talk her daughter-in-law, but she is quick and feisty enough to plan her escape–not her first try, but this time she’s out and on a bus going to Bountiful. Instead of neighbors and the sounds of the city, you can hear birds and no neighbors are seen.
As we see Southern California’s farmlands being swallowed up by cities, the strawberry fields of Irvine now gone, the tomato fields of my hometown just a memory, the lemon orchards of my mother’s childhood remembered in city names like Lemon Grove, we need to recognize that something is lost. Do humans really prefer human made sounds to the natural sounds of the country and how will we remember the country once it is gone? Good times, but that might be sentimental memories that erase the hardships of farming life or rural uncertainty.
Cicely Tyson had seen the 1985 film adaptation of the Horton Foote play and decided that she would make this her final role. She told her agent that she wasn’t greedy. She just wanted one more great part and then she would step out of the limelight. Horton Foote’s daughter Hallie Foote was finally able to grant Tyson her wish.
The 1985 movie was nominated for two Academy Awards–Best Adapted Screenplay for Horton Foote and Best Actress for Geraldine Page. Page won the Oscar as well as an Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead. Foote won for Best Screenplay. John Heard played Page’s son, Ludie and Carlin Glynn was his wife Jessie Mae.
The original Mrs. Watts was Lillian Gish for the Broadway 1953 debut, but Jo Van Fleet was the only Tony Award winner (Best Featured Actress) for Jessie Mae.
For the Broadway revival last year, Cuba Gooding Jr. played Ludie. With tyson as Mrs. Carrie Watts and Vanessa Williams as Jessie Mae Watts. And Tyson was able to add a Tony Awar to her 1974 Emmy Awards (“The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman”) and her 1972 Golden Globe Award (“Sounder”). Underwood replaces Gooding in the Ahmanson production and does a fine job although since I haven’t seen Gooding in that role, I can’t really compare the two.
Tyson, Vanessa Williams and Blair Underwood also starred in the made-for-television Lifetime movie that premiered in March of this year. Tyson was nominated for a primetime Emmy but lost to Jessica Lange (“American Horror Story: Coven”). The movie is currently available VoD on Amazon.com.
This Ahmanson production of “The Trip to Bountiful” is a fanciful, romantic view of Texas in the 1940s. If you can believe in it, then follow this feisty woman’s determined journey home and make time to visit those old friends and family for your own trip home.
“The Trip to Bountiful” continues until Nov. 2. For more information visit the Ahmanson’s website.