Regional Reviews: Phoenix
While Foote won the Academy Award twice, for his screenplays for To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies, he also wrote dozens of plays of which The Trip to Bountiful, which first premiered on television shortly before opening on Broadway in 1953, is probably his best known. This well-crafted yet simple drama is receiving a fairly solid production from Theatre Artists Studio, with a beautiful performance by Judy Lebeau as an elderly woman who is simply trying to find a way to get back home.
The plot focuses on Carrie Watts, who is determined to return to her childhood home of Bountiful, Texas, before she dies. She hasn't been back for twenty years and, due to some health concerns, has been living with her overprotective son Ludie and his overbearing wife Jessie Mae in their small Houston apartment. Carrie has attempted to run away before but never made it to Bountiful. Carrie believes her life is empty and meaningless, and she just wants to find the peace she once knew back in Bountiful. She dreams of getting to her beloved gulf coast town so she can "smell the salt air and work the dirt." Knowing her heart is weak and that her sinking spells are becoming more frequent, she finds the strength for one more attempt to get back to her home, a place she discovers that very few people remember and that's no longer on any bus route.
In a beautifully understated but fully engrossing performance, Judy Lebeau is simply lovely as Carrie Watts. Without being too headstrong or too weak, Lebeau evokes a perfect portrayal of this passionate woman who has a strong conviction, need, and intense determination to get back to Bountiful. But we also see in Lebeau's nuanced performance how nervous Carrie is in thinking she might be caught. Lebeau is delivering an emotionally rich performance full of hope and sadness but not a drop of sentimentality.
Carrie's son Ludie has his share of regrets, and Kent Welborn does a wonderful job instilling this character with the concern someone has for an aging parent while also showing the difficult situation he's been put in, serving as the referee for the frequent fights and disagreements between his wife and his mother. We also understand from Welborn's clear portrayal the frustration Ludie feels in his career and how his drive to succeed has almost made him forget all of his memories of being a young boy in Bountiful.
Heidi Haggerty Welborn is full of fire as Ludie's frustrated housewife Jessie Mae Watts. In a perfectly crafted performance, she creates the kind of character you love to hate, yet she also offers a glimpse of the compassion underneath Jessie Mae's vain exterior. Ms. Welborn's delivery of her lines derives plenty of comedy throughout, yet she creates a layered, complex and realistic character that never borders on being a one-note, over the top, campy caricature just to get laughs. That the Welborns are married in real life only adds to the natural connection of the married couple they play on stage.
As Thelma, a young war bride Carrie befriends on her trip, Ashley Faulkner is a beacon of warmth. Carrie says that Thelma is "sweet, considerate and thoughtful," and Faulkner beautifully brings all of those traits to the character. The scenes with Faulkner and Lebeau evolve realistically, just like you'd imagine happens when two strangers get to know each other and share their life stories over a long journey. In a small but pivotal role, Bill Mosley is compassionate and kind as a sheriff who encounters Carrie.
Director Carol MacLeod has clearly done a very good job to ensure her actors create realistic portrayals and she makes good use of Deborah Mather Boehm's simple yet effective set design, though I wish the set element used to depict the house in Bountiful looked more rundown. The pacing is a bit slow at some points, however, and the use of the same piece of music to start the show and for the several scene changes gets a bit repetitive. The music used is also somewhat intense in parts and slightly morose in others, which doesn't truly seem to fit the nature of Foote's prose or characters. Marney Austin's costumes depict the period and style of the characters quite well.
If you've ever been on a road trip that takes you through remote areas of the country, you've probably seen some of the small rural towns that dot the countryside and realized the ramshackle buildings and homes once saw better days. You might even think about the people who once lived there and the strong connection they may still have to a place that no longer exists in the way they remember. It's easy to understand Carrie's desire to get back to Bountiful, the fond memories of her past, and "home."
The Trip to Bountiful runs through December 15, 2019, at Theatre Artists Studio, 4848 East Cactus Road, Scottsdale AZ. Tickets are on sale at www.TheStudioPHX.org or by calling 602-765-0120
Director/Sound Design: Carol MacLeod