Emerson Arts ‘Trip to Bountiful’ An Absolute Joy (5 Stars)

Trip to Bountiful’ Written by Horton Foote; Directed by Michael Wilson; Presented by ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage at the Cutler Majestic Theatre at 219 Tremont Street, Boston through December 7th.

Having never seen any version of “The Trip to Bountiful” on stage, screen or television, I thankfully had nothing to compare the production currently playing at the Cutler Majestic with, but I honestly can’t imagine a more perfect performance than Cicely Tyson is giving right now. The 80-year old actress completely inhabits her role and brings a presence to the stage that is so three-dimensional that you feel like you’re in some of the scenes with her. As a matter of fact, the entire production is so seamless that you may be transported back in time to post WWII Texas with the rest of the cast.

Of course, while it’s a good deal easier to produce such fine work when you’ve got such a brilliant script (by Horton Foote), the director and cast take full advantage of the opportunities the material affords. Tyson plays Carrie Watts, an elderly woman who wants to return once more to the place of her early life, the town of Bountiful, Texas before she dies. And given her circumstances, who wouldn’t? Carrie shares a small apartment in Houston with her dutiful son (Blair Underwood) and his domineering wife (Vanessa Williams), who treats her like a poorly behaved five year old. And with some reason. Carrie, despite her age and bad heart, has tried to escape back to her hometown before, causing her son Ludie great worry and her daughter-in-law Jessie Mae an inconvenient disruption to her otherwise trivial life.

Jessie Mae is played convincingly by Williams, not as an outright tyrant, but as a self-obsessed and controlling mother-ish type, who is more concerned with trips to the beauty parlor and drug store soda counter than showing any simple kindness to her mother-in-law. Ludie is often forced to take sides in their bickering, and he usually caves in to his wife, knowing that his mother will still love him unconditionally, something he probably fears he won’t get from Jessie Mae. Underwood’s performance is beautifully understated, as a man torn while trying to keep two warring factions happy.

When she finally does escape from the home to begin her trip and meets her traveling companion, Thelma (Jurnee Smolette-Bell in an absolutely lovely performance) we get to experience what Carrie is like when her essence is unleashed, and this is where Tyson’s performance scales the stratosphere. We get to see what a loving and inspirational person she can be outside of the oppressive confines of her home, and what her daughter-in-law is missing out on with her attempts to rein in her spirit by controlling her every move. The scene in the bus station where she coaxes Thelma into singing hymns (complete with a soft shoe dance routine) with her would have been trite in lesser hands but its one of the shining moments of this terrific play. Carrie sings snatches of hymns during the show, but those aren’t the spiritual moments, they come (as they usually do) when the stars align and two people share kindness with each other without looking for anything in return.

The supporting performances are equally good, and the production is flawless. The sets really evoke the era (including a “Whites Only” waiting room sign at the bus station) and feel required to create the reality that the characters inhabit.

This production, which was revived on Broadway with Tyson and co-star Vanessa Williams in April of 2013, is the first time the work has been staged with an African American cast and it feels like a natural fit. The original 1953 version cast Lillian Gish as Carrie Watts and Eva Marie Saint as the young stranger who accompanies her on her trip back home. The revival won a Tony and a slew of honors for Tyson, and this version (with the same cast and director Michael Wilson) came directly from a six week run in Los Angeles, where it enjoyed rave reviews. As it should. It’s an absolute joy to watch such great talent in a great piece that allows the actors to fully explore their characters through repeated performances. It’s the best thing I’ve seen all year. Go. For more info go to: https://artsemerson.org/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=trip_to_bountiful