There’s a moment, when watching Michael Wilson’s production of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, that what you’re actually seeing feels somehow misaligned with how much you’re enjoying it. Not much is happening, but the journey sweeps you along with it regardless.
Boil the play down to its basic ingredients: in 1953, an old woman near the end of her life tries desperately to get out of Houston, where she’s lived the last 20 years, to see her old hometown, Bountiful, one last time. Her son Ludie and daughter-in-law Jessie Mae try to stop her, ostensibly because she’s too old and sick to be traveling alone.
What you’re left with is a fascinating sense of awareness, somewhere in the middle of the second act, that you are extremely invested in a story where not a whole lot is going on.
Much of the reason for the production’s success, obviously, is Cicely Tyson, in the lead role of the elderly Mrs. Watts. Nearly every bit of her dialogue satisfies on a level that’s hard to articulate. Some of her lines aren’t all that remarkable on paper, or at least they wouldn’t be in the hands of another actor. Tyson’s ability to extract every ounce of hidden depth and personality from every spoken word is absolutely mesmerizing. One could watch her perform in that role all day.
Cuba Gooding, Jr. doesn’t quite hit the mark in his portrayal of the timid Ludie, opting for a more childlike disposition than is necessary. Vanessa Williams’s self-centered Jessie Mae is a bit more on target, but still disappointingly indistinguishable from roles she’s played in the past. There’s no point in dancing around it: Cicely Tyson makes this show.
It’s not that The Trip to Bountiful doesn’t redeem itself in other ways. The set and staging masterfully whisk us from a cramped apartment to a couple of bus stations to an overgrown farm—all of them rich in detail and a treat to look at. Even the inside of a bus can be beautiful, apparently.
The story itself is touching, and it will resonate deeply with a great many of its audience. Which brings us back to that sense of awareness. For many New Yorkers—transplants in the city where this production is running—there has never been and never will be that moment where we turn our eye toward another place, old or new. But some of us left behind things that weren’t necessarily bad, they were just too familiar for too long. Some of us found the novelty wear off maybe a bit earlier than we expected. Or some of us just have nomadic impulses that even New York can’t curb.
For those people, The Trip to Bountiful will feel eerily relatable. If you can imagine a beautiful, shining city like New York in 2013 becoming too stifling over time, then it’s not hard to imagine the same of Houston 60 years earlier. Particularly from the perspective of an old lady who knew from the beginning she never wanted to go there—one who is facing the end of her life, and the last chance to revisit what she so unwillingly gave up.
Maybe that’s why it’s so satisfying to sit back and watch a great actress take her trip, and silently, but earnestly, cheer her on.