The Trip to Bountiful
Signature Theatre, New York
The Trip to Bountiful is a simple play that is designed to win its leading lady awards. It started life as a TV play in 1953 with Lillian Gish playing the part of Carrie Watts, supported by the young Eva Marie Saint. On Broadway that year, Jo Van Fleet won a Tony in the part, while the playwright, now almost 90, received a nomination.
The film version was not made for another thirty years but when it came, Carrie - this time Geraldine Page - won an Academy Award. Lois Smith is fit to live in such company, giving a wonderfully moving performance as a hymn-singing, gutsy old woman who wants one last chance to give her life "dignity and peace".
Carrie Watts lives in a tiny Houston (Texas) apartment with her son, Devon Abner's Ludie, and her cruelly manipulative daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae, given disapproving life by the writer's daughter Hallie Foote. This woman's only interests are coke (the drink), going to the beauty parlour and tormenting the old lady, seemingly for the sheer hell of it.
Knowing that her life is nearing its end and after twenty awful years trapped in the city, Carrie is determined to return to her childhood home just once more. This is not easy, as Jessie Mae treats her like an erring child and confiscates her pension cheque to supplement Ludie's meagre wages.
The first bickering scene quickly gives way to a bus station in E. David Cosier's flexible design, which reaches its peak at the dénouement. There, the almost penniless old woman is befriended by Meghan Andrews' Thelma, an equally lonely but much younger woman whose husband has been posted overseas.
The pilgrimage to the idyllic dream of home at Bountiful continues and gradually a little is revealed about the old lady's life and lost love.
Harris Yulin's production features an outstanding piece of acting from Lois Smith who is well supported, especially by Hallie Foote.
The Trip to Bountiful is a simple, old-fashioned play that pays homage not only to a little old lady but also the farming life that was disappearing as people moved to easier and more lucrative jobs in the cities. By the end, the audience has collectively adopted the granny as their own, so determined is she to succeed in her picaresque adventure.
As part of Signature Theatre's two year long 15th birthday celebrations, for much of the run seats are selling at only $15, practically quarter of the usual price. This may well be the best deal in town and helps to ensure that the house is well-populated for every performance.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher