I’m sure you’re desperate to hear what I have to say about nontraditional casting, but on the remote chance you’d rather hear how good this production is, let’s get to that first: it’s fine. It doesn’t explode all the emotional fireworks that Horton Foote distributed through the play, but Director Timothy Douglas has given us something that is witty and plausible, lucid and satisfying.
You may know this story, the best, and best-known, of Foote’s colossal oeuvre. It is 1947, and in a sweltering, three-room Houston apartment, the aged Carrie Watts (Lizan Mitchell), her son Ludie (Howard W. Overshown) and his wife Jessie Mae (Chinai J. Hardy) live in a sort of peaceless coexistence. Jessie Mae is both highly strung and self-indulgent; she cannot stand having her hymn-singing, restless mother-in-law in close proximity, and would gladly be shed of her except for the pension check she brings in every month. An unspecified illness has kept Ludie out of the workplace for two years, and it appears that his moral authority has been compromised as a result. He seeks primarily to keep the peace between the two women, both of whom he needs profoundly.
As for Carrie, she has only one ambition – to leave Houston, and return to Bountiful, the Gulf Coast farming town she left twenty years ago. She pursues this goal with a relentlessness akin to a starving man questing for food, but it is at bottom a spiritual quest. She longs to visit the place where she grew up and married unhappily and buried her children; to stand in the sands of her temporal home, once more, before she sets out for her eternal one. Ludie and Jessie Mae are just as determined to keep her home – Ludie because he doesn’t believe that Carrie can care for herself, and Jessie Mae because she needs the pension check to finance her twice-weekly visits to the beauty salon.
There are a dozen ways to play Carrie, from fragile to feisty, and a dozen ways to play Ludie, from a tragic wreck bereft of self-confidence to a mild, dignified young man recovering from a string of hard luck, and in both cases Douglas has elected to place his characters firmly on the strong end of the spectrum. Mitchell’s Carrie is spry, sly and slippery; if you are old enough to remember Irene Ryan in her later years a comparison might spring to mind. She is not above goading Jessie Mae, and in a battle between the two of them, you might think twice before putting your money on the younger woman. As for Overshown’s Ludie, though he strives mightily to make the two women in his life happy, he puts his foot down when he has to. Douglas reinforces the point with costume choices (Toni-Leslie James is the costumer, and does good work). Although Ludie complains about his salary; the natty suit and tie he wears to breakfast shows that he is headed for an office job, and perhaps a professional one.
Strengthening these two characters has two principal effects: it turns up the comedy and diminishes the drama. Because Mitchell’s Carrie is so resilient and strong, we can laugh easily at her agile wit, since we are less worried that she will get her comeuppance – either at the hands of Jessie Mae, or of the wicked world. But when she talks of her impending death, instead of echoing Foote’s themes she seems manipulative. Similarly, by adding a measure of dignity to Ludie’s character, Overshown makes the earlier scenes easier to take (and to laugh during), but it takes some of the air out of a later, climactic scene in which he asserts himself over his bickering wife and mother. On the other hand, the stronger Carrie and Ludie require that Hardy make Jessie Mae a more overbearing character, so that she does not become sympathetic. This she does, with good effect.
There are many pleasures to this production, including a fine performance by Jessica Frances Dukes as a sweet, awkward young woman on the cusp of a life which appears ready to play out in unimaginable joy. The usually reliable Tony Cisek, however, makes some inexplicable choices with the set; including creating the largest full moon in human history and wrapping Carrie’s childhood home with what appears to be blue kente cloth design. This may have had some deeper significance, but if so, it eluded me.
Now, on to nontraditional casting. Every one of the actors, save for Lawrence Redmond, who played the Sheriff, is an African-American. So what? Edward Albee asked the right question: are “black people and white people interchangeable?” In many contexts, of course, they are not but they are for purposes of this play.
Black people and white people suffer the indignities of age alike; black and white in-laws squabble alike; elderly people yearn for their youth regardless of whether their ancestors came from Africa or Europe, and similarly they must reconcile with the present, regardless of race. With a little tweaking this story could be about Lutherans in Minnesota, or farmers on the plains of Odessa or, if there is sentient life on those planets we’re discovering by the bushel basket in outer space, about those guys, too. It is as universal as they come.
The Trip to Bountiful is scheduled to run thru April 10, 2011 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD.
The Trip to Bountiful
By Horton Foote
Directed by Timothy Douglas
Produced by Round House Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes with 1 intermission