Ford’s transformational “Trip to Bountiful”
A play written in and set in the 1950s, The Trip to Bountiful, now at Ford’s Theatre, gently explores how differently a family can experience dislocation, anxiety and nostalgia based, in part, on their openness to reflecting on their past.
Playwright Horton Foote, who some have called “the greatest playwright you’ve never heard of,” wrote plays about families in Texas. But his stories could take place anywhere.
Focus on an older protagonist
The Trip to Bountiful offers an unusual opportunity for an older heroine. Its main character was played in the original 1953 teleplay, and then on Broadway, by Lillian Gish. Geraldine Page won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the 1985 movie. And Cicely Tyson played the starring role in a television movie and on Broadway in 2013, winning a Tony for Best Actress.
The protagonist is Carrie Watts (played by Nancy Robinette), a widow nearing the end of her life. She is living uncomfortably in her son’s household.
Although she’s lived in Houston for 20 years, of late her desire to return to her hometown of Bountiful, Texas, has grown into a disruptive, worrying obsession.
Carrie has taken to hiding her monthly pension check and using the funds to run away — an odd habit that frightens and angers her son, Ludie, and his wife, who have thus far retrieved her at the train station.
Ludie Watts (Joe Mallon) is doing the best he can, happy to be working again after a two-year illness drained the family savings. Nonetheless, he feels he should be further along in life.
He often can’t sleep for worry, but cannot or will not name his worry. He claims not to remember certain episodes his mother describes. He’s lost but keeps pushing away the map.
Ludie’s wife Jessie Mae (Kimberly Gilbert) tiptoes up to her biggest regret, their lack of children, but retreats into insistent, superficial distractions (beauty shops, magazines, picture shows). Her claim that she doesn’t want to see old photos rings hollow.
Gilbert plays Jessie Mae as a brittle near-villain whose attempts to impose a raft of rules on her mother-in-law sound spiteful. For example, Carrie should not sing hymns or run in the small apartment. The set of the 1940s apartment gives a sense of a space that is loved but cramped, and lacking privacy.
A psychological drama
In truth, Pulitzer Prize-winning and Oscar-winning screenwriter Foote is quietly pointing out the psychological dangers of not remembering, not speaking about life’s regrets, losses and sorrows.
In an interview a decade ago, director Michael Wilson, one of the foremost interpreters of Foote, said, “We need to consider the themes that Horton is exploring: that if we don’t honor the past — the places, the people, the communities from where we’ve come — we are in danger of losing the very essence of ourselves.”
Only Carrie Watts honors her past. She escapes again, landing on a bus with sorrowful young Thelma, who has just seen her husband off to war and is moving back in with her parents.
As Thelma, actress Emily Kester has a role with a lot of sympathetic listening, but she gives the character a more active sense of decisiveness, observation and caring than might be expected. She is ready to hear Carrie’s reflections on unhappy or ambiguous memories, even if these are outside of what she has lived. Unlike Ludie and Jessie Mae, Thelma is ready to learn what Carrie can teach.
The highlight of the play comes when Carrie sings hymns on the bus, centered on the dark stage, and Thelma joins in. Robinette ended the scene with Carrie’s heartfelt laugh, exuding a relaxed grace and emotional fulfillment. In that laugh, she showed the woman Carrie was or had been when not confined to that tense household.
Throughout the play, Robinette turns written dialogue into intimate conversation. The role is physically demanding because the actress must be on stage nearly every minute of the play.
The closer Carrie gets to Bountiful, the more obstacles appear, but Carrie will not be put off. Not even when it becomes clear that the Bountiful that remains is not remotely the same as where she grew up.
In the final scene, amid a stage that conjures an open sky and tall grasses, Carrie is changed by her journey, reconnected with what grounds her.
She tries to pass that lesson on to her son, who admits that he does remember the past but is uncomfortable with his memories. Will he find a way to bring the lesson of Bountiful into his life?
The question is not answered, and as the play ends, it is sad to imagine Carrie — who had become so real — back in the cramped Houston apartment.
The Trip to Bountiful runs through October 16, Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. The play is recommended for patrons 13 and older. Face masks are required during all performances. For tickets, which range from $18 to $48, call the box office at (888) 616-0270. Senior and group discounts are available. Ford’s Theatre is located at 511 10th Street NW, Washington, D.C.