As the curtain rises, Cicely Tyson as Mother Carrie Watts sits framed in a window by moonlight, awake but dreaming of her long ago home in a little Texas town called Bountiful. In the next room her fractious family sleeps– a frustrated, striving son named Ludie (Blair Underwood) and his pretty, nagging wife Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams). Together, the three will travel miles to arrive home, on a a literal and emotional journey scoped out in the Tony-nominated revival of Horton Foote’s deeply moving play THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL presented by ArtsEmerson at the Cutler Majestic Theater. It’s a “make a wish on a falling star kind of play” about surviving life’s sorrows and the yearning for home, starring Tyson in the role that won her a Tony Award on Broadway in 2013 for Best Actress.
The play may creak a bit, but Ms. Tyson– who will be 81 this December– most certainly does not. Her performance, with its sass and delicacy, sits at the intersection of this poignant generational family saga and our hearts. Mine nearly broke last night.
The play was originally written for white actors and won an Oscar for Geraldine Page in the movie version called BOUNTIFUL, but is here recast on a handsome series of beautifully lit sets, with rousing and bittersweet musical interludes, starring black actors–and the transition is seamless. Except for the stiff portrayal of the white sheriff in Act II (Devon Abner) who perhaps, in 1953, might have registered a little more condescension for Carrie’s little old black lady sleeping on a bench in the bus station, it rings true as a period drama, and as a universal story of the power of home to renew our faith in life as we let go. Mother Watts is at a crossroads– she is determined to make a break for it and steal away from the cramped city quarters she shares with her son and daughter-in-law and head back to her beloved hometown. Her current domicile is a war zone where she and Jessie Mae are continually fighting for territory with Ludie in the middle.
Tyson and Williams play perfectly matched adversaries, their bickering betraying Mother Watts’ inexorable desire to reconnect with her roots, and the childless Jessie Mae’s stifled need to establish domain. Much of this is hilarious– Mother Watts skittering around the apartment, squirreling away her pension check, secretly packing, and singing hymns aloud first thing in the morning to get under Jessie’s skin, while Jessie Mae blasts the radio to drown her out and yells at her to stop running around. She’s on to Mother Watts, but she’s not up to her. She’s got beauty and brains, but can’t quite catch her impish elder whose got years more experience surviving, and whose sarcastic, whispered asides are a hoot.
Williams is brilliant in the part– sputtering like a pot continually at the boil; her nattering and complaining might have come off as just plain mean, but somehow we feel for this ungrounded woman with too much restless energy, who hasn’t yet figured out how to make her peace with a life that’s caught her up short. Blair Underwood seems a bit lost in the shuffle here, his performance lacking the nuance to let us really understand his frustration. It’s not until ACT II when Ludie literally spells it out for us in that old fashioned way that some plays have their characters do, that I had a clue about what his problem was. But Jurnee Smollett-Bell whom you may recognize from NBC’s “Parenthood,” and the unfortunately cancelled Emmy-award-winning “Friday Night Lights,” is touching as a lovely young newly-wed whom Mother Watts meets in the back of the bus– a terrific set, by the way! They instantly connect, Thelma like a spiritual daughter; they bring out the sweetness in each other– and the sadness. Mother Watts’ tales of early courtship, a first dance, and lost love, unfold in the shade of darker personal tragedies yet to come, and we feel ourselves overwhelmed with compassion.
Tyson’s performance here is like divine revelation. She cuts a fragile figure, and also cuts quite a rug, nimbly leading us through the dance of a life with its share of joy, grief, and more than a touch of whimsy; her rock solid moral compass keeps her on the path. She is extraordinarily charismatic. I wanted to know her, be with her, protect her on her way to what turned out to be quite bountiful– for all of us. When Mother Carrie Watts finally steps out on her rickety ol’ porch, smells the blossoms on the aged wisteria vine growing there, and later spies a scissor-tailed bird overhead, my spirit soared. As Mrs. Carrie Watts walked off the stage at the end of the play and into the Texas sunset, I burst into tears and leapt to my feet along with the rest of the audience in one of the most spontaneous and heartfelt standing ovations I’ve ever seen from a Boston audience. Thank you, Ms. Tyson, for making it all all right.
DO NOT MISS THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL before it closes at the Emerson/Cutler Majesticon December 7.