Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Trip To Wonderful

There are certain moments you sit in a theater and you realize you are in the presence of greatness.  That was how I felt watching Cicely Tyson in "The Trip to Bountiful". This acting icon hasn't been on Broadway in 30 years, but those acting chops are well-oiled and in top form. Watching her, you can't help but recall all her amazing films from Miss Jane Pitman to Roots to Sounder to even Fried Green Tomatoes and recently The Help. Whatever movie she does - she gives her all in a role. And that was what she does every night on stage playing Carrie Watts in Horton Foote's fifty year old play. The truly amazing part is that at 79 (or 88) years old (depending on which online source you believe) - she carries this show! All those lines, dancing and singing hymns, constantly moving, and acting that can convey powerful emotion in one line.

The play follows an elderly woman's plight to return to the small Texas town she grew up in. She lives with her son and his wife in a cramped apartment and wants nothing more than to sit on the porch of that home in Bountiful. What is wonderful about it is that it shows what so many older people think and feel: they are still young on the inside even though their bodies are giving out. I hear that from so many people. And while some reviewers have criticized the production directed by Michael Wilson as being uneven and not as sentimental as the 1985 film starring Geraldine Page, I think the uplifting final moments portrayed by Tyson are in line with what many elderly feel. They don't sit around being sad about aging: they live life and recall memories that bring them peace and give them a sense of accomplishment in the world: and why CAN'T that be a positive moment instead of sad?

Vanessa Williams knows how to play a 'bad character' without having an audience hate her. And as the daughter-in-law that is at odds with Ms. Watts, she gives a wonderful performance as a self-centered, Hollywood loving woman. Cuba Gooding, Jr. makes his Broadway debut and I only wished he would saved the 'little boy act' for later in the show. A man caught between his mother and wife, his character has a tough time and Mr. Gooding seemed to be lost between two fine actresses. Tony nominated Condola Rashad is another wonderful actress in this production as a woman that befriends Ms. Watts on her bus trip to Bountiful.

The music, lighting and especially the sets by Jeff Cowie (who should have been Tony
nominated) all evoke the perfect setting and time for this piece. This production does something that has been tried before by turning a play usually played by white actors into an African-American story. I think that casting worked very well because while a period piece, racial issues are never addressed, but alluded to by the characters sitting on the back of the bus and having a whites/coloreds line at the bus station. At times it felt as if Mr. Foote had written this play specifically about a black experience that is also universal. (Such smart writing!)

Lastly, there is nothing like watching a show with a predominantly African-American audience. I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church and I know when people agree with a minister; you let him know. So does this audience. They groan approvals and discontent with what happens on stage. And yes, they join in singing as Ms. Tyson 'leads us' in a few old-time hymns. (I'll admit, I was caught up in the moment and was humming right along.)

A wonderful piece that I am so glad I got to witness. The joy on Ms. Tyson's face is infectious and I left the theater in such a great mood. Thinking of my own childhood in Texas, my family - those still around and those that have already left us. And I loved it so much that I turned around and purchased tickets for this summer when my mother will be visiting. She's not as elderly as Carrie Watts in this play, but she (like so many other retired people) does think about her history, her parents and her own 'Bountiful'. 

I can't wait to share the experience with her.

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