Theatre VCU’s ‘A Trip to Bountiful’ is a bounty of delights
Read More: Andrew Craig, Christian DeAngelis, David Emerson Toney, Dominique Carr, Grenville Burgess, Horton Foote, Joey Warton, Josh Chenard, Kate Fraser, Lauren Venezia, Marcelo Guzman, Pamela Archer-Shaw, Raymond Hodges Theatre, Theatre VCU
A Trip to Bountiful was written by the great Southern playwright Horton Foote, who is most well known as the screenwriter of the movies To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies (for which he won an Academy Award).
A Trip to Bountiful was originally written as a teleplay in 1953. “Trip” tells the story of an elderly woman’s return to her hometown of Bountiful, Texas. A trustworthy vehicle for star turns — originally by Lillian Gish and Geraldine Page, among others—it was revived on Broadway several years ago with Cicely Tyson in the lead role. Hallie Foote, the playwright’s daughter, transformed the play so that it could be produced with a black cast.
The VCU production follows that lead.
The transformation imparts new resonance to the deceptively sentimental story.
The beauty of this production is that this new resonance is allowed to develop on its own without drawing attention to itself.
Directors David Emerson and Josh Chenard keep the symbols down to a minimum, instead allow the collective memory of the audience provide the context of the African American experience.
First and foremost this is a journey of one woman named Carrie Watts (played with grace and humor by Pamela Archer-Shaw), who, like the swallows of Capistrano, instinctively needs to return to her birthplace before she dies.
As the play opens Miss Carrie finds herself melancholy, sharing a two bedroom apartment in Houston with her son, Ludie and his wife Jessie Mae. Ludie has a low income job and Miss Carrie’s pension check is necessary to make ends meet and allow Jessie Mae the luxuries she feels entitled to.
Ludie is committed to take care of his widowed mother who has a bad heart condition.
The cramped apartment is too small a space to contain the tension between the adults. Designer Grenville Burgess creates a self-contained, modular unit that in addition to being beautifully crafted, successfully captures the smothering, claustrophobic details of daily life.
Miss Carrie makes a break for it one evening and takes a bus to the town of Bountiful (so small and undeveloped it doesn’t have its own bus stop).
At the bus station, she instinctively lets a white woman get in line before her. On the bus, she is prevented from taking a seat, until the back seat is all that is left.
Even though the vestiges of racism are present, there seems to be a protective patina around Miss Carrie, as if she were on a divine mission.
Although several crushing revelations occur on her journey, Miss Carrie is blessed to find aid and comfort from almost everyone she meets. A sympathetic back seat companion named Thelma lends an ear, a helpful bus station manager comes to her aid and a Texas Sheriff uncharacteristically helps Miss Carrie get to Bountiful even though he has been advised by Carrie Mae that Miss Carrie might be “crazy.”
Such pluck in the face of adversity verges on kitsch; for a moment a wave of syrupy sentimentality seems to be building up in the wings.
But the dialogue Foote crafted for Carrie conceals both its skill and a quiet despair. A master of exposition, he drops in tragic revelations where they’re least expected, as when Carrie offhandedly mentions old wounds to Thelma—a tragic romance, a dead child—that deepen our understanding of her as a tragic figure. For all their sweetness and candy-colored dresses, the women exchange a poignant parting look that’s unmistakably an acknowledgment of mortality.
Pamela Archer-Shaw is delightful Miss Carrie. Although not the most subtle interpretation of age, her Carrie Watts is adorable. Miss Archer-Shaw’s talent, energy and spunk is infectious.
One might take issue with Ms. Archer-Shaw’s interpretation at the opening of the play. Rather than capturing the rhythms of everyday melancholy that you associate with Foote, Ms. Archer-Shaw begins at an energy level so high we are led to believe she has her escape already in motion. She does sit and fume at one point, but it looks like she’s waiting out her time. There is never a feeling of being resigned that she will never see her birthplace again.
Of course once she makes the break for home, all is well and we revel in being able to join her in her journey.
Vincent Ramirez is also excellent as the reserved Ludie, caught in the crossfire between his mother and wife. In Ramirez’ moving interpretation, this deeply decent man is so overwhelmed by his responsibility for the two women’s happiness that their modest longings wound him like accusations.
As Jessie Mae, Mother Watts’ frivolous, narcissistic, over-caffeinated jailer, Dominique Carr makes an entertaining foil. Hers is a difficult assignment. The interplay between the two female characters is a little generic. One chases, the other foils.
The ensemble is uniformly excellent. They sing like angels and move the set like ballet dancers.
Mikayla Bartholomew has a natural ease playing Thelma, Miss Carrie’s bus companion. She shows a deep compassion and respect for Miss Carrie that helps the audience relate to the older woman. Joey Warton’s Bus Station Manager is affable, charmingly helpful and delightfully goofy. Marcelo Guzman’s Sheriff at first seemed too un-Sheriffy and mannered, but once he gets to Bountiful with Miss Carrie, he is surprisingly and affectingly humane.
VCU’s Raymond Hodges Theatre (a professor gone by the time I got there) is a massive, Coliseum type space. In 1979, its blueprints were studied in Chairman Kenneth Campbell’s Advanced Directing Class. One student commented that the space was appropriate only for circus type entertainment. To which Dr. Campbell replied: “the better to challenge you, my dears.”
Happily, Directors David Emerson Toney and Josh Chenard have directed their designers as well as they have directed their actors.
Grenville Burgess delivers a beautiful scene design. By building modular set pieces he reduces the space to the dimension of those self-contained pieces. The two bedroom apartment that opens the play literally rolls off the playing space after its use. Houses are rolled on. Bus Stations are suggested with benches and ticket counters. This compartmentalization allows set designer Burgess and lighting designers Andrew Craig and Christian DeAngelis to focus the eye in smaller areas, making the actual dimensions of the space moot.
The design scheme is unfussy and well composed. The arrangement of the set pieces in the apartment are clever. A modular design within a modular apartment. Suggestive walls and brick gave the feel of enclosure and urban life.
Lauren Venezia’s Costumes were lovely. From Ludie’s sharp looking hats to Jessie Mae’s very sexy slip and fancy wear, all seemed very well coordinated. Maybe the sheriff’s pants were bothersome. Dark pants with lighter colored shirt seemed to betray the feeling of “uniform.” It’s a matter of taste.
The play starts off with angelic hymnal singing which sweetens the whole play. Other music and sound effects designed by Kate Fraser added beauty and dignity to the whole scheme.
Ultimately, what makes this harrowing “Trip” endurable, even uplifting, is Miss Carrie’s hard-won humor and wisdom, and the peace she is able to make with her own unhappiness.
“There are worse things,” she dryly retorts when the sheriff reflects on her childhood friend’s “lonely death alone in a big house.” This small, tart moment will stay with me—as will memory of this charming production.
The Trip to Bountiful runs through October 2, 2016 at VCU’s Raymond Hodges Theatre. You can find out more about the show and snag tickets here.
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