Sunday, November 28, 2004

Trip to the Bountiful (Ensemble Theatre)

‘THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL’ gets an acceptable voyage at Ensemble

It is fitting that at this time of year Ensemble Theatre chose to reprise one of its most memorable shows, ‘THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL.’ The play contains a wish for peace, in this case inner peace, and a desire to travel to where the happy memories of life took place.

The play by Horton Foote originally was an hour-long TV drama with Lillian Gish in 1953. Foote expanded it for Gish and it had a Broadway opening that same year. It was transformed into a film in 1985. Foote is also the author of the scripts for ‘TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD,’ ‘TENDER MERCIES.’

The story concerns Carrie Watts who, in the 1940’s is living in the twilight of her life, trapped in a small Houston, Texas apartment with a controlling, self centered daughter-in-law and a hen-pecked son. Her fondest wish is to revisit Bountiful, the small Texas town of her youth which she still refers to as "home." Mrs. Watts imagines that if she can get away and return to her old home in the town of Bountiful, she is sure to regain her strength, dignity and peace of mind.

After numerous attempts she finally gets on a bus for “home.” With the help of the local sheriff, she eventually fulfills her dream, but learns that the friends of her youth have all died or scattered, and her home is no longer the spacious mansion of her memories, but a crumbling wreck. But she has the supreme satisfaction of plunging her hands into the earth, which leaves her with a sense of that strength and dignity which will give her the courage to survive. When her son and daughter-in-law appear on the scene to take her back to Houston, she consents to return quietly, secure in the knowledge that the remainder of her existence will be enriched as a result of her last contact with Bountiful.

Sound a little too hokey and contrived, too pat to believe? It is, but that’s part of what this time of year is all about. Visions of sugar plums dancing, reindeer flying, a small vial of oil burning brightly for eight days instead of the prescribed single day are what make for “good will for all.”

The role of Carrie Watts is a dream role. Besides Lillian Gish, it has been played by the likes of Geraldine Paige. On the local scene, Dorothy Silver, the crowned Queen of Cleveland drama, was compelling in the Ensemble Theatre’s previous production of the show. Their present production also features a strong performance by Bernice Bolek, a Scene Magazine winner of “Best Actress of the Year” for her performance in Ensemble’s ‘THREE TALL WOMEN.’ Bolek consistently has control over the role. She is properly tender and headstrong, humorous and dramatic.

Mark Cipra is totally engaging as the controlled and conflicted Ludie. As one audience member mumbled, “I’d like to knock Ludie on the head and knock some sense into him.” No finer compliment could be given an actor.

Meg Kelly Schroeder is inconsistent as Jessie Mae. We need to really detest this self-centered woman from the first word out of her mouth. Unfortunately, at times she sparkles, at other times she is emotionally dead. Celeste Costentino is fine as Thelma, a woman who helps Mrs. Watts during her travels. The rest of the cast stays on the surface.

Stephen Vasse-Hansell’s fragmentary set designs would not have been a problem if they were well executed, but they are not. The sets were poorly built, unbelievable, and caused awkward pauses as the sets are changed. On the other hand, Corby Grubb’s sound design was excellent. Also on the positive side, the Texas drawls were consistent throughout the production.

Director Lucia Columbi has paced the show much too slowly, extending the playing time at least fifteen minutes longer than it should be. Also, there were some strange technical decisions. Why were obviously fake cigarettes used? If the actors wouldn’t smoke, why fake it? There would have been nothing lost as smoking was not an integral part of any character’s role. And why was no liquid poured in the drinking glasses or coffee cups?

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL’ is a soap-opera script which, when well done, can evoke an emotional tug and some thought provoking reactions. In spite of fine performances by Bernice Bolek and Mark Cipra, the Ensemble production is acceptable, not as compelling as it could have been.