ArtsEmerson's "Trip to Bountiful": the Enchanting Island of Cicely

Cicely Tyson, Arthur French & Jurnee Smollett-Bell in "A Trip to Bountiful"
(photo: Craig Swartz)

ArtsEmerson’s current offering of the recent Broadway version of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful” has an impressive pedigree. It began as an original television drama (remember those?) way back in 1953 with none other than Lillian Gish in the lead role of Carrie Watts. It transferred to Broadway for a brief run with the television cast intact. Three decades later it resurfaced in a well-received film version with Geraldine Page winning an Academy Award for her performance of Mrs. Watts. Most recently, in 2013, it was revived on Broadway and subsequently again on film by the Lifetime Network (nominated for two Emmy Awards) with essentially the same cast now being enjoyed in its Boston reincarnation.

The story is a simple one, that of the physical and emotional journey of the elderly Carrie Watts (Cicely Tyson) who lives in Houston with her very protective son Ludie (Blair Underwood) and his bitchy wife Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams). Forbidden by Ludie to travel alone and no longer able to drive herself, she fulfills her dream of revisiting her ancestral home in the (mythical) small Texas town of Bountiful, escaping by bus. She meets a young woman, Thelma (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) on the bus and tells her story in lengthy conversation with her. At the penultimate stop, she even convinces the local sheriff (Devon Abner) to drive her the remaining leg of her journey. Of course she finds time hasn’t been kind to the town (long ago depleted by the double whammy of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl), or the family homestead. Predictably her son and daughter-in-law catch up with her and take her home. Other roles include Roy (Arthur French), a ticket agent (Wade Dooley), and various travelers and bus employees (Pat Bowie, Russell Edge, Dalila Ali Rajah, Keiana Richard, Duane Shepard, Sr., and Desean Kevin Terry). And that’s about all that happens, accompanied by a healthy dollop of sentiment and a whole lot of heartfelt language. The production is ably directed by Michael Wilson, with meticulously detailed Scenic Design by Jeff Cowie, perfect vintage Costume Design by Van Broughton Ramsey, effective Lighting Design by Rui Rita, and Original Music and Sound Design by John Gromada. This includes some intrusive and unnecessary piano tinkling to underline or underscore dramatic tension less appropriate for live theater than for the sort of thing seen on the Lifetime network, where, as noted above, this production found a home last season.

The simplicity of Foote’s basic story with its universal themes, despite that healthy dose of sentiment (and sometimes sentimentality) is alive and well and presently thriving at the Cutler Majestic Theater, in no small part because of its stellar cast. Initially a henpecked stereotype, Underwood, a Golden Globe nominee, comes into his own in the moving final scene with his mother at the family home. Williams, a Tony and Grammy Award nominee, courageously takes on one of the theater’s most unflattering roles. The rest of the cast, including the memorable Smollett-Bell and French, are superb. But it’s Tyson’s recreated Tony-winning and Emmy-nominated turn that is the island of sanity and serenity in this production. With more than eight decades of life experience from which to draw, she’s just plain astonishing. (Her reaction when she’s literally bowled over by some unexpected bad news is alone worth the price of admission). The play shows its age, but not the player. The work remains primarily a vehicle for an enduring star, starting with Gish sixty years ago, and Tyson surely makes it her own. Toward the end of the play, Ludie admits he should have taken his mother back to her home sooner. The same could be said for Tyson and Boston,

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