Cicely Tyson is the reason to take a “trip to bountiful” with her and her costars at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. The 80-year-old actress is masterful and shows why her performance in The Trip to Bountiful, a revival of Horton Foote’s play about an elderly woman longing to see her hometown, truly earned her a Tony award.
Blair Underwood and Vanessa Williams also reprised their Broadway roles in the Ahmanson production, which will run through Nov. 2. They are solid in the simple story (and no one minds the various times Williams bursts into song), but Tyson shines and hold the quiet, slow-moving play together.
Tyson plays Carrie Watts, who lives a marginalized life in the 1950s in a two-room Houston flat with her son, Ludie (Underwood) and his selfish, shallow wife, Jessie Mae (Williams in a 1953 version of Wilhelmina from Ugly Betty). Ludie has a meager job that does not cover the expenses for his frivolous wife and sorry life. They partly rely on Carrie’s pension checks. Jessie Mae resents her mother-in-law’s presence and they both lock horns and try to one-up each other.
Carrie longs to escape her cooped up life and return to the wide-open setting of her youth, Bountiful, Texas. She keeps telling Ludie her desire to go to the idyllic “home” she remembers.
Carrie finally plots her escape, gives Jessie Mae the slip and heads for the bus station. On her journey, she is helped by a young women (Jurnee Smollett-Bell from Friday Night Lights, Parenthood and True Blood) travelling the same route, a Greyhound ticket agent at the stop nearest to Bountiful (Arthur French) as well as the local sheriff (Devon Abner) who understands elderly Carrie’s desire to return to the site of her girlhood and find closure to her life.
With the sheriff’s help, Carrie does return to her run-down family farm and the now abandoned town that once was Bountiful. Her son and his wife come to fetch her, but not before the son realizes how important the trip was for his mother to find peace (and finally tells his wife off!).
The role of Carrie has long been a great one for an older actress. The original production was a teleplay in the 1953 and starred Lillian Gish as Carrie. The film version in 1985 won Geraldine Page an Oscar. But, this recreation with a black cast – while offering Tyson a stage to own – is more nuanced with the added element of segregation in the mid-20th century South providing more dimension. It was the three main cast members here who starred in the Lifetime TV production version (along with Keke Palmer as the young woman) this past February in honor of Black History Month.
The sets and staging at the Ahmanson are very simple. But they convey the dreary Houston life, the segregation and the crumbling no-longer “Bountiful” farm beautifully. Kudos to Jeff Cowie for scenic design!
Williams and the understated, nuanced Underwood are good in their roles. But, the take away is that it is Carrie’s story and it is the incomparable Cicely Tyson who is really worth The Trip to Bountiful in L.A. They will be at the Ahmanson until Nov. 2. Then, the production and leads are scheduled to appear in Boston Nov. 20 to Dec. 7, 2014.
By Dyanne Weiss