Cicely Tyson has returned to Broadway-and in the best possible vehicle. After a thirty year absence, the celebrated actress (Emmy winner for “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and other television movies)—with New York credits including “The Corn Is Green” and “Trumpets of the Lord”— is bringing her singular blend of inner fire and emotional richness to a role that could have been written for her— namely home—bound widow and mother Carrie Watts in the 1953 Horton Foote play “The Trip to Bountiful.” Under the sensitive and generally effective direction of out director Michael Wilson and on vivid sets designed by his partner Jeff Cowie, Tyson is giving a performance as vital and life-changing as Watts’ return to her country home in the title town.
For Carrie Watts, that life change ensues as she escapes from the urban confines of a busy Houston apartment, well-detailed by Cowie with furnishings as close together as Carrie, her beleaguered son Ludie and his domineering wife Jessie Mae, to the freeing spaces of bus travel to her rural roots. Self-centered Jesse Mae tries to rein in Carrie— pestering her about the pension check she is soon to receive and chiding her for singing around the apartment. Ludie— henpecked but duly respectful of his mother— struggles to find a balance between the demanding wishes of his wife and the rights and feelings of his mother. Only when Carrie has snuck off to make her way to Bountiful does she find the freedom to sing—and even dances as she pleases—kicking up her heels at a bus station in rustic Harrison, not far from her home town.
Tyson brings sublime spirit to Carrie’s contrasting ‘mischievous’ behavior in Houston and her unrestrained demeanor in Harrison. With amazing energy (at age 88 or 78, depending on the sourde), she rushes around the apartment and achieves the kind of acceleration in her rocking chair that exercise gurus would admire. At the bus station, her robust singing of “Blessed Assurance” proves so infectious that audience members who know this spiritual actually join her in a kind of soft-voiced chorus.
Despite Carrie’s jubilant vocal and movement at the station, a tough reality sets in as she arrives at her dilapidated Bountiful home. Cowie, an artist as well as a designer, has given the house the quality of a harsh but striking tableau, that entangles its now unoccupied ruins with the natural growth around With a mixture of resignation about the past and resolve for the future, Tyson’s Carrie reaches a closure that some theatergoers may see as too optimistic but which nevertheless honors the beautiful human odyssey that Foote chronicles in “Bountiful.”
Director Wilson continues a close association with Foote’s plays, one that brought another strong family dynamic to life at Hartford Stage (where he once served as artistic director) in the recent IRNE Award-winning (for best ensemble) “Dividing the Estate.” Foote’s actress daughter Hallie (who played a featured in that play) was a prime mover in casting Tyson and fellow African-Americans as the Watts family and bus station fellow traveler and army bride Thelma in a production with added resonance. Cuba Gooding, Jr. is properly affecting as Ludie, though his performance strengthens from too much confidence in the early going to a more convincing low-key stance as the concerned son catches up with his independen-minded if aging mother. Vanessa Williams’s Jesse Mae has the right sharpness in early exchanges with
Tyson’s Carrie and proper modulation as she relaxes her domination. Designer Van Broughton Ramsey, though, needs to tone down her outfits, which complement Williams’ beauty so much that theatergoers will find it hard to believe that Hollywood is not rushing to would-be film star Jesse Mae’s door. Adepero Oduye captures Thelma’s longing for her husband and her caring attentiveness to Carrie with fine understatement. Tom Wopat is appealingly low-key as the sheriff that escorts Carrie to her home.
“The Trip to Bountiful” makes a timely call for honoring the past and connecting with human feeling. It also celebrates the inspired talent and unique heart of Cicely Tyson.
The Trip to Bountiful, Stephen Sondheim Theatre (Broadway), through October 9.
Two major extensions of previously reviewed winners have been announced— “Cavalia” (Somerville) through September 22 and “The Two –Character Play” (Off—Broadway) through September 29.