Cicely Tyson now joins Laurette Taylor in the small pantheon of actresses who have given us monumental performances onstage; Ms. Taylor of course, for her Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, the memory of which is still vividly alive for all of us who were fortunate enough to experience it. Judith Anderson might join the ladies, for her Medea. And I’ve heard that Jeanne Eagels created quite a stir with her Sadie Thompson in Rain.
Ms. Tyson’s vehicle is Horton Foote’s lovely play The Trip to Bountiful and we owe our thanks to a consortium of producers headed by Nelle Nugent for offering it to us as the ’12-’13 seasons eases to its finish. Laurie Metcalf in Long Day’s Journey, Amy Morton in Virginia Woolf, Kristine Nielsen in Vanya and Masha, Holland Taylor in Ann have all, or are now lighting up the sky with luminous work. All are Tony nominees. But standing high above them like the Statue of Liberty is Cicely Tyson.
Wouldn’t it be terrific if some enterprising producer put the whole lot of them, along with Bette Midler and Judith Light and Jessica Hecht and Sigourney Weaver, others who’ve brightened our theatre experience this season, into a superstar revival of Claire Booth’s The Women?
Horton Foote’s play is a love letter to an old woman who is stuck in a two room ground floor apartment in Houston, confined with her grown son and his wife. Contention runs riot and the poor thing wants nothing so much as a chance to return one last time to the battered farm she and her son left behind when the earth turned sour and forced them to abandon the land she so loved in her younger life.
Twenty years ago, she’d brought her small son to the city where she could earn a salary and where eventually he could find a bride and a job to sustain all three of them. When we meet her, she is able to aid them slightly by giving her daughter-in-law her government pension check each month.
She retains her spirit, but her body has withered, and it takes all her strength to maintain a touch of dignity as she must constantly respond to the will of her selfish and dominating daughter-in-law. The beauty of this simple play about complicated people is that Mr. Foote draws three dimensional characters and puts words into their mouths that are specific and revealing. In the hands of Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Vanessa Williams, the son and daughter-in-law come smashingly alive, and as so often happens, in the midst of genuine pain there is riotous laughter as this human comedy is played out.
The story is simple, but though specific to Ms. Carrie Watts’ (Ms. Tyson) determination to see her home in Bountiful one last time, it becomes a universal tale of any dream any one of us might hope to realize before we depart. In Carrie Watts’ case, it’s been a recurring dream that is 20 years old, and from our first glimpse of her, rocking in her ancient chair, looking out the window in the rain, yearning for the sweet smell of the land she loved in Bountiful, we are enthralled.
I don’t know how she manages to convey despair, hope, submission, courage, tenderness and ferocious self defense in so many arresting ways — with a face that can smile radiantly and snarl ferociously almost simultaneously — with a voice that can purr one moment and screech the next — with a body that can trot in flat shoes, yet dance with elegance and grace whenever required.
In a word, she is a joy and a comfort, and by the evening’s end she had me dissolved in tears one minute and on my feet cheering in the next. You miss this performance at your own peril. Its like won’t come this way soon again.
I’ve read elsewhere that some found Michael Wilson’s direction “sluggish”. I, on the other hand, was so grateful that he allowed his star all the time she needed to relish each moment, to convey to us the joy she felt, the rapture as she first sought and then later found what she was looking for to bring her peace. Under Ms. Tyson’s spell, I could smell the summer Texas breeze, I could see the redbirds she was re-discovering, I could feel the dried and caked earth beneath her feet as she returned to her beloved Bountiful.
Jeff Cowie’s sets perfectly conveyed the 1950s Texas, altered slightly from the original script as Tyson and her family were black, in the pre-civil rights south, so the bus station was “for coloreds only”, and the bus itself had the characters in the last two seats. No mention of this was made, nor should it have been, but it did tell us something of the horrible way things once were in this land of ours.
Besides Mr. Gooding and Ms. Williams who are so clear in projecting the fire and ice of their particular triangular family circle, I must make note of Condola Rashad, whose work continues to grow. As a fellow traveler, she brings innocence and grace to a young woman on her way home to rejoin her parents while her young husband is off serving in the army. Her big scene on the bus with Ms. Tyson is worth a visit all on its own, and should be studied by every young acting student
And then we have the ever-interesting and charismatic Tom Wopat who can carry a play or a musical with equal ease. This time he is the Sheriff whose path crosses with Mrs. Carrie Watts, and he adds texture. proving once again, “there are no small parts.”
The play may take its time, may wander a bit in its second half, but I reveled in every moment. The actors filled each pause, and I wouldn’t have missed a moment of it.
Make an effort to see this; you’ll remember it always.
The Trip to Bountiful is onstage through Sept 1, 2013 at The Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036.
Details and tickets.