TOP PICK. Graceful, elegant, and haunting, The Trip to Bountiful is generally considered Horton Foote’s best work, and at the Bethesda Writer’s Center, Quotidian Theatre Company is lovingly giving it its due. Led by the magnificent Jane Squier Bruns and the rest of director Jack Sbarbori’s perfect-pitch cast,
Quotidian once again shows why it takes a back seat to no theater in Washington as an interpreter of Foote, who Quotidian considers one of its two “cornerstone” playwrights.
Consider: in a miserable, crowded Houston apartment, Carrie Watts (Bruns), an old woman with a broken heart, sits humming a hymn and staring at the moon. Those of you familiar with the Old Time-y Religion will recognize the hymn: it is Will Thompson’s “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling”, and you will remember the refrain as well: “Come home, come home,/You who are weary, come home;/ Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,/Calling, O sinner, come home!” That, in a nutshell, is Carrie’s dilemma and her only desire: she wants to come home.
She is not there now. In the wide world, it is the Second War, but the apartment features the war of the Watts – specifically, the war between Carrie and the daughter-in-law from Hell, Jessie Mae Watts (Laura Russell), whose monstrous selfishness is her greatest strength. Carrie’s overmatched son Ludie (John Collins) is the inadequate referee, whose tenuous authority in the household is further undermined by his two years of unemployment, caused by an unspecified illness and recently come to an end. Though there seems to be endless conflict between Jessie Mae and Carrie – Jessie Mae can’t stand Carrie’s humming, for example (“hymns make Jessie Mae nervous,” Carrie explains wryly) – the big issue is this: Carrie wants to return to Bountiful, the rural Gulf Coast town in which she grew up and raised and buried her children, to live out the remainder of her life. Jessie Mae, who depends on Carrie’s pension to finance her trips to the beauty parlor and otherwise balance the family budget, is determined not to let it happen.
This conflict animates the entire play, and drives it forward. In lesser hands a two-hour play driven by a single conflict might become tedious, but this excellent cast never lets our interest flag. It is immediately apparent that we are in a time and place different from our own, but thanks to the conviction and consistency with which the actors inhabit their characters, we are not strangers for long. It is a startling thing to hear a grown man call his mother “ma’am” at the outset of the play and even more startling to hear Carrie and Jessie Mae call each other “ma’am” as they sling their verbal napalm at each other, but we are in 1940s Texas, where family psychopathology was often expressed through excellent manners. After a while we get used to it.
Much of the credit must go to Collins and Russell, who succeed in making their unlikeable characters human. Ludie is passive by nature, but Collins and Sbarbori have found the tools in Foote’s text to make him more than a milquetoast, and the play’s conclusion, in which he asserts himself, thus flows naturally from the action beforehand. Russell could easily have made Jessie Mae a mere harridan, but she uses the character’s unselfconsciousness to turn her into something more: a woman who, to her own mind, truly is a victim, married to a man who disappointed her but who she loves still, and voluntarily sharing her tiny living quarters with a mother-in-law who is driving her nuts. The business of an actor in a serious play is to make a full-borne, complex character grow out of the field the playwright lays out for them. Foote gave Collins and Russell a hard stubbly row to hoe, and the harvest is terrific.
Characters with fewer lines nonetheless pay the same attention to detail as the leads, and the result is one of those rare plays in which there is not a single false note. I particularly liked John Decker as a bus-station ticket agent who is startled to discover that he must physically restrain Carrie from her travel to Bountiful, but Samantha Merrick, David Dubov, Don Bruns and Steve LaRocque all turn in first-rate work as well. Even Sbarbori, in an uncredited cameo (non-speaking, but not non-grunting) as a bus station customer, adds to the production.
Sbarbori’s sound design is excellent and his set and Don Slater’s lighting design are sufficient to the task. Foote wrote The Trip to Bountiful as a teleplay, and thus it contains scene changes which would tax a company whose resources were considerably more – um, bountiful – than Quotidian’s. The company does what it can with them, and the audience, buoyed by the fine acting and story, passes through them without difficulty.
I give nothing away when I tell you that Carrie finally makes it to Bountiful, and there finds the town abandoned and her old home rotting away. The oil business has replaced farming in the economy of Texas, and the Gulf Coast has become the Ghost Coast. It does not matter. She has once more seen the old homestead, smelled the salty water, and listened to the calls of the Redbirds and Scissortails. She is at peace, with herself and her family, and is willing to go back to Houston. A woman of faith, she has been reassured about the existence of goodness, and will now await a different homegoing, to a place even better, and more permanent, than Bountiful. “Why should we tarry when Jesus is pleading,/ Pleading for you and for me?/Why should we linger and heed not His mercies,/ Mercies for you and for me?”
The Trip to Bountiful – TOP PICK
By Horton Foote
Directed by Jack Sbarbori
Produced by Quotidian Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
- Barbara MacKay . DCExaminer