Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Trip to Bountiful

TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL is a marvelous journey at CPH

Take a well crafted play by one of America's best down-home writers; produce it under the guidance of a masterful director who understands the script and its nuances; add a cast, each of whom adds a textured performance; and interject meaningful musical underscoring and lighting that sets the right mood in every scene. The results: THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL at the Cleveland Play House.

On the surface, BOUNTIFUL is the story of an elderly woman with a heart condition, who is determined to escape her son's cramped Houston home and return to the small town where she was born and raised. But, in reality, it is about the search for self, the meaning of roots, the importance of self-dignity, nostalgia, and the desire to be an independent person.

To understand the nuances of the play, it helps to be in touch with Horton Foote, Jr., the play's author and his style of writing. Pulitzer Prize winning Foote, who died several years ago, was born in the small Texas town of Wharton. His life experiences in that setting were the basis for many of his writings. He creates the well-made play which has a clear flow from beginning to end. There is a gentleness, a celebration of the quiet life of rural Americans in his plays' fictional small towns. Probably best known for his Academy Award-winning screenplay for the 1962 film TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, he is correctly cited as one of America's most beloved dramatists. He's not as well known to the general public as Williams, Miller, Inge, Albee or O'Neil, but he is a theatre icon to those in the theatrical know who appreciate his understated and focused style.

THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL was originally a 1953 television show, which stared Lillian Gish, with appearances by Eileen Heckart and Bowling Green State University grad Eva Marie Saint. A movie version was delayed because Foote insisted that Gish play the lead role and those in Hollywood, who controlled the production rights, refused to cast her. The script also had a short run on Broadway with Gish. Finally, in 1985, a film was made with Geraldine Page in the lead.

The CPH production, under the masterful guidance of Timothy Douglas, is meticulous in detail and nuance. It was Douglas's idea to make a major alteration in the way the script has been performed in the past. Previous stagings have always had Caucasians in the major roles. Douglas, who has a great deal of respect for Lizan Mitchell, who plays the lead in this production, wanted to work on a project with the actress. Knowing that there were few roles for “women of a certain age” [mature], he started to look for a script. He suddenly realized that there was no reason that one of his favorite plays, THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL, had to have a white cast. The message is universal, the accents and sound of the play are small town Texas, which was populated by both white and black folk. He contacted Foote's daughter, who controls the rights to her father's plays. She immediately gave permission. The rest, as they say, is history….history which is now unfolding on the CPH stage.

We should be grateful to Douglas for his insight. The script works perfectly with no adjustments in dialogue. In fact, those who don't know that it was not written to be performed by blacks will be astounded to find out that this is not a script like those of Lorraine Hansberry (e.g., A RAISIN IN THE SUN), which are specifically written for black performers and there is no way to switch races.

Lizan Mitchell gives a bravo performance as Carrie Watts. This is a textured, deeply motivated, clearly conceived presentation. With a smile, a wink, a frown, or a scowl, she creates depth of characterization. Her face is like a road map to her feelings. She has several mesmerizing soliloquies that are acting lessons on how those speeches should be performed. She glistens, she shines, she makes the audience laugh and cry!

The rest of the cast is equally as impressive. There is not a weak link in the emotional chain. Chinai Hardy, is “bitch” incarnate as the insecure and self-centered Jessie Mae, Carrie's daughter-in-law. Howard Overshown, as Carrie's son, Ludie, shows all the signs of being psychologically whipped by his wife and made uncertain by his lack of self-confidence. When, as he does in the final scene, stands up to Jessie Mae, several members of the audience audibly cheered. Jessica Frances Dukes as Thelma a young woman who Carrie meets on a bus while trying to escape from her confining hell, is sweet and tender and convincing. Lawrence Redmond as the sheriff, and Doug Brown, in various roles, give credible performances.

Lighting designer Christopher Studley leads our visual senses through the moods of the play by masterfully developing the early scenes in dark tones, mimicking Carrie's frustrated frame of mind. When she finally returns to where she wants to be, the lights brighten, mimicking the clear burst of light that has come into her life.

The musical underscoring is right on pitch in creating the moods of the script.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL is a tender, moving and sometimes delightful script, which gets a wonderful production at the Cleveland Play House. It's a go to, must see, theatrical experience. Finally, a production that got a mandatory Cleveland standing ovation, and deserved it.