Graceful spirit is 'Bountiful' in play

June 15, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

In the lead role of a geriatric Texas widow in Olney Theatre's production of "The Trip to Bountiful," Halo Wines has a spirit as big as the name of the town in the title.

In 1953, when this touching Horton Foote play takes place, Carrie Watts is living in a tiny Houston apartment with her son and daughter-in-law. Her life has become cramped and citified, and her heart is no longer strong, but her will is indomitable.

She is determined to see her hometown of Bountiful one more time before she dies.

When Wines' Carrie gazes out the apartment window, she gets a gentle smile on her face and a peaceful, far-away look in her eyes as she sees herself as a young girl, running through the fields of Bountiful. (We see this, too, in the form of an actress -- uncredited in the program -- who moves gracefully and silently in the background.)

Carrie's spirit surfaces even when she does household chores. Setting the table for breakfast, she sings her favorite hymns from her girlhood to the place mats and napkins.

These hymns -- and just about everything else about Carrie -- infuriate her self-centered harridan of a daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae, played with bossy self-righteousness by former Baltimore actress Julie-Ann Elliott. Most of all, Jessie resents having to stand guard over Carrie to keep her from running away to the Gulf town of Bountiful, as she has attempted to do several times.

Caught in the middle is Carrie's well-meaning son, Ludie, struggling to keep peace between these grown women who squabble like children.

Although his accent occasionally wavers, Richard Pilcher, an adjunct faculty member at the Baltimore School for the Arts, imbues Ludie with enough decency to prove he's his mother's son.

We truly get to know and admire Carrie, however, after she succeeds in escaping the stifling confines of the apartment and opens her heart to a young stranger she meets in the Houston bus station. As that stranger, Tia Howell is every bit as "sweet and considerate and thoughtful" as Carrie describes her, and the bond that forms between them feels genuine.

Howell delivers an excellent performance, but director Jim Petosa's choice of an African-American actress for this role is a questionable use of color-blind casting. Foote's script is so firmly rooted in the pre-Civil Rights South that it's difficult to forget that this was a time when whites and African-Americans rarely shared seats on a bus.

In almost every other respect, though, this production is an example of subtle, moving direction.

Above all, Wines' portrayal of Carrie is what makes the evening glow. Competing with the heartwarming memory of the late Geraldine Page's Academy Award-winning performance in the 1985 movie is not an enviable task. Wines pulls it off by showing us a different side of Carrie -- emphasizing her intelligence and downplaying the dottiness Page brought to the role.

Combined with the luminous, Andrew Wyeth-like vision of Bountiful created by set designer James Kronzer and lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner, this is a production worth a hymn of praise.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "The Trip to Bountiful"

Where: Olney Theatre, 2001 Route 108, Olney

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, with matinees at 2:30 Sundays and June 18 and 23; through July 3

Tickets: $22-$27

Call: (301) 924-3400

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