Sunday, November 30, 2014

The theatrical bounty of Trip to Bountiful

Cicely Tyson shines for Jurnee Smollett-Bell in The Trip to Bountiful. Photos: Craig Schwartz.

I've been around long enough to know a theatrical Rolls when I see one, and trust me, The Trip to Bountiful, which wraps its run at ArtsEmerson this weekend, is about as sleek a set of wheels as you're likely to find onstage this season. Whether it amounts to much more than a gleaming vehicle for its distinguished star, Cicely Tyson, is open to debate, I might argue - if I felt like arguing; but I don't, not really. Bountiful is a handsome, thoughtful, well-acted production of a minor play, but for most audiences (and most critics) that has been more than enough - particularly given it showcases a much-loved 81-year-old star on a post-Tony victory lap.  So who am I to disagree?

And for the record, Ms. Tyson is luminous indeed, and perhaps knows better than to go digging for depth where there ain't all that much to be found. Horton Foote's crowd-pleaser, like many of his crowd-pleasers, aims for something like the haunted spirit of Chekhov, only with a bit more mass appeal.  After all, the playwright cut his teeth on TV, in the days of shows like Playhouse 90 (in fact Bountiful began its life as a broadcast in 1953), and he never lost his Hallmark Hall of Fame chops. His signature trope is the small-scaled portrait of loneliness, dabbed with wistful sympathy, and framed with a nod to the knowledge that home may be where the heart is, but it's still awfully hard to find in real life (not for nothing did he write a play series titled "The Orphans' Home Cycle").

Of course in the rearview, teleplays like Trip to Bountiful have begun to look a bit like Chekhov simply because they're so comparatively genteel, so poignantly civilized. And Bountiful is certainly poignant as hell; in what amounts to nearly a pure distillation of Foote's usual method, it follows the gently failing Carrie Watts (Miss Tyson) as she forsakes her unhappy lodgings with soft son Ludie (Blair Underwood) and dissatisfied daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams) for a dream of the past - the stately family manse she remembers on the outskirts of the ironically-titled Bountiful.

We, of course, know what waits for Carrie at the end of her sentimental journey; in fact there isn't a single (even minor) surprise in this play. But we hardly mind, for there's no bite to her disillusionment - when the idealized scales finally fall from Carrie's eyes, the moment simply feels like yet another exercise in nostalgia.

But there is one new wrinkle in this particular production - director Michael Wilson and his designers have retro-fitted the play (which was originally designed for white actors) with a poignant racial subtext - and one that aligns neatly with Foote's Oscar-winning screenplay for To Kill A Mockingbird. Miss Tyson and her co-stars drift through a careful reconstruction of the apartheid that once reigned in the Deep South: we note they are always standing in the "Colored" Waiting Room, or seated in the back of the bus. The issue is never forced - in fact it's never even commented on - but it haunts the production; every moment of grace counts for that much more against this backdrop.

The trouble is that it's hard to square American apartheid with the halcyon days Carrie remembers in Bountiful; we wonder whether in the Jim Crow era her family would have really been allowed to own a country estate, much less join dances at the Opera House in town. Hence at the finish, this subtext is quietly dropped, sans explanation.

Blair Underwood and Vanessa Williams in The Trip to Bountiful.

Luckily the actors have been doing subtle enough work that we don't really need it for the script's gentle homilies to hit home. And I'm not only referring to Miss Tyson's performance. Indeed, while she may be the "draw" of the tour, co-stars Vanessa Williams and Blair Underwood are its under-sung surprises. Ms. Williams remains a striking beauty, with a formidable stage presence, and hints at veins of frustrated feeling beneath Jessie Mae's no-nonsense exterior; meanwhile Underwood contributes a smoothly under-played portrait of her pliant, but far from weak, husband. My eye was also caught by skillful turns from Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Arthur French, and Devon Abner - although really the entire cast is poised and persuasive. The beautifully detailed scenic design is by Jeff Cowie, the period-perfect costumes are by Van Broughton Ramsey, and Rui Rita provides the evocative lighting. There isn't really a false note in the entire production. So to my mind it's all the talent onstage (and off) that makes this particular Trip truly bountiful.

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