25 May 2013

'The Trip to Bountiful' (2005)

[At the end of his New York Times review of the current revival of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on West 43rd Street, Ben Brantley mused about the 2005 staging by the Signature Theatre Company which starred Lois Smith as Carrie Watts.  Brantley had reviewed that production, too, and I saw it and wrote a short report on the performance.  Both Brantley’s and my responses to that revival were quite different from his assessment of the Broadway production which opened on Tuesday, 23 April (and is scheduled to close on 7 July), and I thought it would be interesting to look back at my account, written four days after I saw the performance, of the earlier presentation.  Of that production, Brantley recalled in the Times on 24 April: “The 2005 Signature Theater revival of ‘Bountiful,’ starring Lois Smith, left me drenched in tears.”

[Bountiful started its life as an hour-long teleplay. Foote originally wrote it for Fred Coe, producer of NBC’s Goodyear TV Playhouse, an anthology series alternatively titled the Philco TV Playhouse (because the sponsor varied).  It aired on NBC on 1 March 1953 with a cast headed by the legendary Lillian Gish.  (Foote’s first choice for the lead actress, though, was Shirley Booth, later TV’s Hazel from 1961 to 1966 who’d just won an Oscar for 1952’s Come Back, Little Sheba.  She turned down the role because she said she wasn’t ready, at 46, to play an old woman.  Gish was 60.)  Also in the TV cast were Eileen Heckart (Jessie Mae), John Beal (Ludie), Eva Marie Saint (Thelma).

[A few months later, the Broadway début of The Trip to Bountiful opened in a Theatre Guild production at Henry Miller’s Theatre on 3 November 1953 and ran for 39 performances before closing on 5 December.  Carrie was again played by Gish and Jo Van Fleet (who’d had a small part on television) was Jessie Mae under the direction of Vincent J. Donehue (who also staged the TV version).  Van Fleet won a featured actress Tony and Eva Marie Saint got a Theatre World Award for her performance as Thelma.  Signature’s Trip to Bountiful, which launched the theater’s two-season 15th anniversary celebration, opened at the Peter Norton Space on 4 December 2005, after starting previews on 15 November, and closed on 11 March 2006.  The revival was staged by actor Harris Yulin and costarred Foote’s daughter (and frequent interpreter), Hallie Foote, as the daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae.  The sets were designed by E. David Cosier, the lights by John McKernon, the costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, and the sound by Brett R. Jarvis and Loren Toolajian (who teamed to compose the original music as well).  The production won 2006 Lucille Lortel Awards for Outstanding Revival, Outstanding Director (Yulin), Outstanding Lead Actress (Smith), and Outstanding Featured Actress (Hallie Foote); the 2006 Obie Award for Outstanding Performance (Smith); the 2006 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Actress in a Play (Smith); and 2006 Drama Desk Awards for Best Actress (Smith) and Lifetime Achievement (Horton Foote).]

The Signature Theatre’s Trip to Bountiful, which I saw at the Peter Norton Space on 42nd Street near 11th Avenue on Friday, 9 December 2005, was quite excellent all around, and Lois Smith’s performance was superb.  I’ll describe it in a moment, but first, let me relate a true New York theater moment I had.

After the show, I made a pit stop in the men’s room.  When I came out, a line had formed and about three people from the door, I spotted Edward Albee.  Now, that alone is a New York theater moment—like the time I saw Colleen Dewhurst sitting alone, smoking in the upstairs lobby of the Uris Theatre (now the George Gershwin) during the intermission of Sweeney Todd.  But there’s more. 

As I was walking past the line, I heard the guy in front of Albee, whom I didn’t recognize at all, saying to him, “Someday I hope to do Virginia Woolf justice.”  Well, my initial instinct was to make a comment like “I kinda thought somebody already had” as I passed by, but I decided to keep my mouth shut.  So I did. 

I have no idea who the guy talking to Albee was.   Was he a director or a play reader or what?  No idea.  (It’s more fun to imagine . . . .  If the guy was a director, maybe he didn’t know that Albee himself had staged a Broadway revival back in 1976 with Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara.  I imagine the playwright feels he’d already “done Virginia Woolf justice,” don’t you?)  The man looked youngishsay mid-30s or soand I wasn’t even sure that Albee knew him.  I don’t know if Albee’s like Woody Allen and doesn’t like to be approached in public, but he looked a little uncomfortable.  Since I was just passing by on my way out, I may have caught only a momentary reaction and be misinterpreting the whole scene.  Albee didn’t say anything, in any case.

(Actually, that wasn’t the only New York theater moment I had that evening.  As I was walking my dog, Thespis, before I left for midtown, a large gaggle of young people passed me on my block.  They looked like they were in high school, but I’m betting it’s college: I live near NYU and the New School, both of which have residence halls or classroom buildings within a two-block radius of my apartment.  Anyway, just as they were going past, one guy in the middle of the bunch asked out loud, “What do you know about Ionesco?”  A little guy in front—he really did look like he wasn’t out of high school yet—turned around and announced, “Ionesco?  I love Ionesco!”  At which point, he walked backwards right into a woman trying to make her way down the sidewalk.  If it had been Samuel Beckett, they’d have fallen into a heap on the pavement.  But they didn’t.  Just a brief pinball effect.)

And now, the play: 

Readers know, I imagine, that I have long come to distrust Ben Brantley’s opinions in the New York Times.  I truly think he lives in a bubble of his own imagination.  He nailed this one, however.  (Even a stopped clock . . . .)  Diana, my theater companion, remarked that this play of Foote’s comes close to Tennessee Williams, though I don’t feel the lyricism of Williams’s writing.  Foote’s words are far more literal and realistic, but there is a kind of mysterious force at work in Bountiful that may have disappeared in Foote’s later, more prosaic treatments of his Texas homeland.  [I wrote this, of course, long before I saw Signature’s magnificent production of Foote’s three-part Orphans’ Home Cycle.  ~Rick]  In any case, the 1953 play (made into a film starring Geraldine Page in 1985) is tender and poignant—perhaps a little too sentimental for today’s cynical world, but clearly heartfelt and genuine.  (I’m not sure, but Bountiful may have been Foote’s first play—or his first to achieve significant attention.)  I’ve never seen it before (not even the film), so I may be wrong, but my sense is that its success depends greatly on how the actress playing Carrie approaches the role—and, of course, how well she handles it.  If she’s too mawkish or spacey or eccentric—a possibility—the play takes on a strident tone, as if we’re being forced to sympathize with a truly difficult person—like we’re being manipulated.  If the actress gets the idea right but can’t pull it off with subtlety and honesty, we just won’t believe it.  Lois Smith, as Brantley said, is a marvel on both counts.  Her sense of being imprisoned in the Houston apartment and besieged by her insensitive and selfish daughter-in-law (Hallie Foote, the author’s daughter), is palpable, but not overstated.  This is not Blanche Dubois grown into old age—Smith’s Carrie is just an old woman with a bad heart who’s made some sad choices in life and now just wants to go back to the place where she was happy, probably to die.  The fact that Jessie Mae, the daughter-in-law, pretty much treats her as an unwanted house pet—Jessie Mae won’t let Carrie sing hymns in the house because they get on her nerves—only makes this all the more credible.  Carrie’s not eccentric or crazy—which is what Jessie Mae calls her, the only thing she does that actually makes her husband, Ludie (Devon Abner), angry—just a little sentimental in her old age, and suffering from terminal cabin fever. 

Carrie has a history of running away, trying to get to Bountiful, whenever she’s left unwatched and alone in the cramped two-room apartment—she sleeps in the living/dining room—in Houston, and this infuriates Jessie Mae, who confiscates Carrie’s pension checks as much to keep her tied to the apartment as to pay for her own visits to the beauty parlor and her Cokes at the drugstore.  (Ludie has just gotten a real job after a long unemployment due to an unspecified illness.  Jessie Mae not only doesn’t work, but doesn’t seem to do much housekeeping, either; Carrie does the dusting and cooking, it seems—despite her bad heart.)  I actually rooted for her to break loose, and when Jessie Mae reveals that a pension check, due that morning, seems to be missing from the mail, you just know that Carrie has glommed onto it and is holding it in reserve for a break-out.  When Jessie Mae decides to take a chance and leave Carrie at home while she meets a friend at the drugstore for a Coke—she can’t get a beauty parlor appointment until 4 p.m., and she just can’t sit around all that time—I root again that Carrie’ll get away this time, just as she does, in fact.  As Smith plays her, Carrie just deserves to get back to Bountiful once before she dies.  (It may be a bit contrived that, first, the bus doesn’t go to Bountiful—you can’t get there from here!—and, second, it turns out that the town has in fact simply died when the last inhabitant, Carrie’s girlhood friend, whom she had hoped to stay with, died a few days before.  Contrived, but perfectly apt: the dream she has, after all, is also a chimera.) 

The fact that Carrie charms everyone she meets, except for her daughter-in-law, from Thelma (Meghan Andrews), a young woman traveling on the same bus, to the ticket clerk (Frank Girardeau) at the town nearest Bountiful where she gets off to the sheriff (Jim Demarse) who’s been ordered to hold her until Ludie arrives to take her back to the big city (the sheriff ultimately drives her out to her old farm in Bountiful and stays with her until Ludie comes) is only proof that Carrie’s really just a dear lost soul.  Smith captures this absolutely perfectly.  There’s not an eccentric, peculiar, or idiosyncratic element in her performance—it’s just solid and real.  She’s not even especially sad or pathetic; she’s just a little driven.  Once she gets “home,” you can see that she’s satisfied her itch, even though she knows she can’t stay, even to die.  She’ll go back to Houston with Ludie and Jessie Mae and obey all the rules her daughter-in-law lays out—because she’s been home and seen the sky and the soil and the birds.  That’s all she ever wanted—and now she’s content.  Ludie may have learned something, too, by coming home—he remembers everything Carrie had been telling him about his boyhood there, even though he pretended not to have.  But Jessie Mae hasn’t, and you can guess that she’s in for some surprises back in Houston.  (Ludie had been contemplating asking his boss for a raise at work that morning, and we learn that the boss was pleased to give it to him.  I took this as a suggestion that he’s getting back his self-confidence, and something of the spine he must have inherited from Carrie.)

Hallie Foote does what I take to be a good job on Jessie Mae.  It seemed to me she was written as an unchanging single note, and Foote manages to pull off the once or twice she appreciates Carrie without making it seem contrived (by Horton Foote) or begrudging (by Jessie Mae).  As selfish as she is, this suggests that there’s a human being back there, though it’s not much.  If Foote’s portrayal is one-dimensional, I think it’s the play’s fault more than the actresses (or director Harris Yulin’s).  Ludie, too, is appropriately meek and submissive.  Not abject: there’s some indication here also that he’s not only what we see here.  I don’t know Devon Abner, the actor who played the role (he seems to be mostly a writer for stage and screen), but I don’t think that the character’s one-dimensionality is his fault, either.  (This is why I say that the success of the play depends so much on the actress playing Carrie.  Even the best director couldn’t do much with the other roles, and the script is the script.  Not that Yulin did anything wrong at all.)

E. David Cosier’s set (lit by John McKernon) was kind of nice, too.  It sort of reminded me of a pop-up book in a way.  Bountiful is a long one-act (an hour and 50 minutes without intermission), so each scene is like a new page of the story in a sense.  Each time the scene shifted, the old set moved off and the new set moved on, courtesy of electrical motors with low-tech assist (that is, stage hands or actors moving set pieces on dollies).  It isn’t in the least innovative, but it worked, and, as I said, it was like each time you turned the page, a new scene popped up.  (Well, okay—popped in.  Let’s not quibble over prepositions.)  I never felt I was being made to sit too long, though, and I have at other, shorter shows.

I guess the summation is that while The Trip to Bountiful isn’t ever going to be earth-shaking theater (it’s more like William Inge than Tennessee Williams, I think), it’s lovely, truthful, and, in this production, nicely done.  After so much bad theater over the last couple of seasons—bad plays or bad productions or both—this was more than a pleasure.  And Lois Smith, whom I only know from TV (mostly) and film, was a true delight.  She’s too young for the role to have been written for her (she’d only have been about 23 when the play was written)—but if Horton Foote had come around to see this performance, I suspect he’d have wondered if he hadn’t been clairvoyant half a century ago.

*  *  *  *
The press response, with one glaring exception, was nearly ecstatic, particularly about Lois Smith’s portrayal of Carrie Watts.  In 2005, I didn’t do the review survey that I customarily do now, so I’ll recap the critical reception here.  The only wholly negative review was Bob Kent’s in Variety, which noted that “the new revival of ‘Trip to Bountiful’ at Signature Theatre Company is regrettably flat and underwhelming.”  Kent acknowledged, “At times this production nails exactly the right bemused observational tone” but continued that “director Harris Yulin’s production remains stubbornly average.”  The Variety review-writer did observe, “By herself, Smith nearly makes this a worthwhile ‘Trip,’ but concluded that “it feels more like a faintly tiresome holiday gathering.”  No one else I read agreed, it seems.

Since I started this revived report with Ben Brantley’s 2013 Times review (and alluded to his earlier one above), I’ll continue with his notice of the 2005 STC restaging, which he called “beautifully mounted.”  Yulin’s direction, said the Timesman, “finds the emotional authenticity” of Foote’s script that makes it “seem newborn.”  Praising all the elements of the physical production, Brantley made special mention of the set design: “What follows the opening scenes has an almost mystical seamlessness, as Mr. Cosier's sets float on and off the stage.”  (By the way, Brantley’s remarks in his review of the 2013 Broadway revival about being brought to tears were rendered thus in 2005: “[T]his production . . . finds the emotional authenticity in a 1953 drama often remembered as a tear-jerking chestnut.  This is not to say that you should attend the show without an ample supply of handkerchiefs.”)  In New York’s Daily News, Howard Kissel wrote, “The production . . . is pure joy.”  Having compared Foote’s dramaturgy to Chekhov’s, Kissel added that Bountiful “has been given a radiant revival by the Signature Theater Company” in which, “under Harris Yulin’s skilled direction, every moment resonates deeply.”  Calling the production “genuinely moving,” Sam Thielman of Long Island’s Newsday especially complimented Cosier, who’s “set shifts quickly into various instantly recognizable configurations.”  Dubbing the STC revival of Bountiful “touching,” the New York Post’s Frank Scheck declared, “Foote’s play is a marvel of economy, one in which numerous important themes are conveyed through the simplest of situations and dialogue” which “Director Harris Yulin has staged . . .  expertly.”  After observing that “there are stretches of obvious exposition and a melodramatic monologue or two,” David Sheward of Back Stage summed the revival up by pronouncing it “a journey well worth taking.”  Sean O’Donnell of Show Business asserted, “Director Harris Yulin successfully weaves a quiet tapestry of nostalgic yearning in a production that is nothing short of breathtaking” and that the performance “resonates long after the curtain has fallen.” In Time Out New York, Robert Simonson affirmed simply, “Yulin, Smith and company have achieved something of quiet excellence.”

The cyber press was pretty much in line with the paper-and-ink reviewers.  On Talkin’ Broadway, Matthew Murray wrote that “director Harris Yulin has lovingly interpreted Bountiful for the rich new Signature Theatre Company revival” and Elyse Sommer of CurtainUp said the “beautiful new production” was “a trip worth taking” that’s “remarkably timely.”  TheatreMania’s David Finkle reported that STC’s revival of Trip to Bountiful “is to be cherished” and that ”Harris Yulin has directed the play with compassion and tenderness.”  On nytheatre.com, Martin Denton described the production as “lovely, immensely satisfying, and . . . just about flawless,” a “fertile, generous, and lush a theatrical experience” that’s “about as perfect a production as one could wish for.”  Michael Dale of BroadwayWorld dubbed Signature’s revival “beautiful and tender,” having been “delicately directed with a selectively lazy touch by Harris Yulin.”  “Go and be enthralled,” he urged. 

It was the acting, though, that got most of the press attention, starting with TONY’s Simonson, who declared, “As for the rest of the ensemble, any aspiring actor seeking an object lesson on what can be made of a small role need look no further.  Even the nonspeaking actors shine—a tribute to the thoughtful, seamless rhythms Yulin has wrought.”  TheatreMania’s Finkle wrote that the production, especially the final scene, “is exquisitely acted by all” and, pronouncing the STC revival of Bountiful “acted with quiet skill by the best ensemble cast in town,” the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout added, “I doubt you’ll ever see it acted better, especially by Ms. Smith.”  As befits an actor’s journal, Sheward asserted, “Director Harris Yulin has assembled an ensemble of sensitive performers who inhabit Foote’s frustrated souls,” in Back Stage and Brantley of the Times found that the “supporting cast . . . never strikes a false note.”  And though most of the cast was singled out for mention in all the notices, Newsday’s Thielman praised Hallie Foote, who “wisely underplays one of her father’s least likeable characters,” and Kissel correctly observed that the actress “manages to catch  the humor of the daughter-in-law without making her an easy villain.” 

“But the evening ultimately belongs to Smith,” reported the Post’s Scheck, adding that “the actress seems to sum up the entire human experience in her memorable performance.”  The Postman declared, “Lois Smith creates magic of her own” as “the veteran actress delivers a performance that is at once heartbreaking in its pathos and uplifting in its spirit.”  Newsman Kissel described Smith’s singular performance as “incandescent,” specifying that the actress “does not minimize how difficult Carrie can be, but she also captures the poignance of precarious old age.” Asserted Thielman, “Smith’s sweet, sad senility as Carrie Watts gives Horton Foote’s ‘The Trip to Bountiful’ the tang it needs,” adding that in the end, “Lois Smith brings a real sense of loss to her part, making it sting as she discovers, bit by bit, that Bountiful, Texas, is barely on the map anymore.”  Back Stager Sheward characterized Smith’s work as “luminous,” and WSJ’s Teachout praised her acting as “so beautifully straightforward that you feel as though you’re eavesdropping on her.”  “Luminescence,” which is what David Finkle said Smith brought to her performance, seemed to have been a leitmotif in the reviews, though BroadwayWorld’s Dale used a near-synonym when he wrote that Smith “sparkles as Carrie.”  The Village Voice’s Michael Feingold wrote that “Lois Smith proves herself . . . with a performance that manages to be simultaneously feisty and moonstruck,” concluding that “Smith makes her unfulfilled goal as transcendent as Don Quixote’s knight-errantry.”  Feingold ended his praise of Smith with a gratuitous jab at our then-ruling family: “To watch her mingling of crab and saint is to feel a little of the wonder that Texas used to mean before the fake cowboys of Kennebunkport invaded.”  (I just had to include that little dig!)  While Talkin’ Broadway’s Murray quibbled about Smith’s portrayal in contrast to Lillian Gish’s, Sommer called her performance “solid gold” on CurtainUp. 

In his review, the Times’s Brantley also called “that fine actress for all seasons” Lois Smith’s acting “luminous,” but he seemed possessed by her “cerulean stare.”  As if mesmerized, he confessed, “I had never before realized how blue and bottomless her gaze is.”  Later, Brantley observed the Smith’s eyes “brim with the expectation of a child on the morning of her birthday” and even compares the lighting of John McKernon and the music and sound design of Loren Toolajian and Brett R. Jarvis with “the glow in Ms. Smith's gaze.”

*  *  *  *
[There’d been speculation, including some in the press, that STC’s revival might have a Broadway run in its future.  James Houghton, the company’s artistic. director, sought a Broadway theater for a transfer of Bountiful after its run at the Norton Space but none was available.  Having already extended the revival at the Norton as long as possible, Houghton rejected a transfer to a larger Off-Broadway house because the expense was too great for the potential box office benefit.  As a result, a rep theater show that was both popular and well-received critically didn’t get a chance at a broader audience.

[The Signature Theatre Company’s 15th Anniversary Season was divided into two parts.  In 2005-06, the company staged plays by previous writers-in-residence: Foote’s Trip to Bountiful and John Guare’s Landscape of the Body.  In 2006-07, STC scheduled the delayed August Wilson season that had been postponed when the playwright died in October 2005.  Previously, STC presented its first Horton Foote season in 1994-95, including Talking Pictures, Night Seasons, The Young Man From Atlanta, and Laura Dennis.  But Foote is the only playwright to whom Signature has devoted two complete seasons, mounting that monumental three-part, nine-play autobiographical opus, The Orphans’ Home Cycle, in 2009-10.

[I got to see Lois Smith on stage again subsequent to this marvelous performance when I saw STC’s presentation of Tony Kushner’s The Illusion, a translation and adaptation from Pierre Corneille, in June 2011 (see my blog report posted on 1 July 2011).  Smith played the sorceress, Alcandre, usually a male role, in the final presentation of STC’s Kushner residency.  I got to see her briefly after the performance—playing opposite her as Pridamant was a former teacher of mine, David Margulies, so I waited by the stage door to say hello to him—and I got to tell Smith how much I liked her work in Bountiful and even in HBO’s True Blood on TV.]

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