Characters take the road least traveled Review: 'Trip to Bountiful' helps put the writer on the map.

November 15, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In the first scene of Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful" at Everyman Theatre, lead actress Vivienne Shub sits humming to herself in a rocking chair. In the final scene, outside an abandoned house in the deserted Texas countryside, there's another rocking chair, this one broken and unusable.

Seeing the ruins of this house, however, is the only thing that can restore the spirit of Shub's character in this ironically titled play about people whose lives have become discouragingly meager.

Although director Grover Gardner's production lapses into sentimentality in places, the dashed hopes and claustrophobic existence of the Watts family are portrayed so poignantly that they call to mind the fragile characters of Tennessee Williams.

From the opening moments, it's clear why Shub's Mrs. Carrie Watts is desperate to escape the cramped Houston apartment she shares with her son Ludie and shrewish daughter-in-law Jessie Mae. Despite the peacemaking efforts of Timmy Ray James' gentle Ludie, bickering seems to be the only way Mrs. Watts and Lynn Steinmetz's Jessie Mae are able to communicate. After 15 years together, the members of this family are locked so deeply into their roles that they have mastered the art of getting on each other's nerves.

Jessie Mae is high-strung and petty, but Steinmetz keeps her from becoming a caricature. James' frustrated Ludie is a beautifully understated performance. Ludie is a man devoted to two diametrically opposed women, and his efforts to meet their differing expectations will always fall short. Particularly in the bus station scene, when he and his impatient wife nearly track down the wandering Mrs. Watts, James movingly conveys Ludie's repressed tension.

Mrs. Watts is determined to return to Bountiful, the small Texas gulf town where she was born. That determination is all that keeps her going, and when she makes good her escape and befriends a fellow bus passenger, she seems like one of her beloved Bountiful birds, spreading her wings after years of being caged.

Shub, a veteran Baltimore actress now in her seventh decade on the stage, occasionally overdoes Mrs. Watts' fervor, but when she depicts this warm, loving widow opening her heart to the stranger seated next to her, you wish you could be that seatmate. Elauna Griffin, who plays the part, at times seems too sweet to be true, but that may be inherent in a role intended to be the halcyon antithesis of Ludie and Jessie Mae.

From the rocking chairs to the blank picture frames (suggesting lost dreams) in the Wattses' tiny apartment, Robin J. Stapley's attractive sets are carefully detailed with vintage props by John Glaeser and lighting by Ted Doyle.

"The Trip to Bountiful" has had three lives -- as a 1953 television drama, a Broadway play later that year, and a 1985 movie, its best-known form. Foote has, in fact, had a more visible career as a screenwriter ("To Kill a Mockingbird," "Tender Mercies"). But in 1995, off-Broadway's Signature Theatre devoted a season to his plays, and since then renewed attention has been paid to the stage work of this quiet master of the domestic drama. Everyman's "The Trip to Bountiful" isn't a completely smooth journey, but it reaffirms Foote's place in the rich tradition of Southern American writers.

'The Trip to Bountiful'

Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2: 30 p.m. Sundays; through Dec. 7

Tickets: $15

Call: 410-752-6757

Pub Date: 11/15/97

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