Regional Theater Review: THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL (South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA)

by Tony Frankel on November 9, 2011

in Theater-Regional

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YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN

A trip to South Coast Rep is exactly what was needed to shake off the blues of this year’s morass of over-produced and/or over-written theater. The Trip to Bountiful, Horton Foote’s plaintive 1953 teleplay (adapted for Broadway and for the 1985 film with Geraldine Page), paints a picture of rural America in the 1940s that gently reminds us that there was (and may still be) a place in this country where people tip their hats and say, “Yes, Ma’am.” Revisiting this lovely gem, an evocative masterpiece of narrative, is a potent reminder that there is an art to storytelling.

The Trip to Bountiful by Horton Foote at South Coast Repertory – Regional Theater Review by Tony FrankelAt heart, this is a classic adventure tale where our heroine, the aged Carrie Watts (Lynn Milgrim), is determined to return to her childhood Gulf Coast home of Bountiful, but she needs to escape her overprotective son Ludie (Daniel Reichert) and his nagging wife Jessie Mae (Jennifer Lyon). The Coca-Cola swilling shrew Jessie Mae would rather be at the Beauty Parlor than watching over Carrie, but her mother-in-law has repeatedly tried to run away with pension check in hand. With a fragile heart and sinking spells no doubt empowering her conviction, Carrie actually manages to get on a bus to the home she hasn’t seen in twenty years.

There is a reason that storytelling has a method which has worked for eons: by making a declaration and taking action on that vision, our heroine is beset by challenges and disappointments which cause her to take stock of her life, both past and present. She makes friends along the way who encourage her to keep going, including Thelma (the enchanting Lily Holleman), a young war bride who actually gleans comfort from Carrie’s hymn singing, which was considered taboo by Jessie Mae back in that two-bedroom apartment in Houston.

The Trip to Bountiful by Horton Foote at South Coast Repertory – Regional Theater Review by Tony FrankelThe role of Carrie is a scenery-chewing opportunity, yet Ms. Milgrim, under the gentle guidance of director Martin Benson, actually invites us closer to the play with her restraint and poise – a tender breeze from the gulf is much preferable to an Atlantic hurricane. Her performance is a gift to the other actors, as it allows them to have their rightful place in the sun: Mr. Reichert’s Ludie is both lost boy and regretful adult, and while we needed a bit more compassion from Ms. Lyon to round out Jessie Mae’s irksome harassing, she perfectly embodies the petulance and frustration of a bored housewife.

The technical team is a wonder: the transition from claustrophobic apartment (which seemed quite lovely for a family with no means) to bus depot was smoother and faster than any production seen to date, thanks to Thomas Buderwitz’ set design; the ubiquitous sound designer Cricket S. Myers is deservedly given her chance to shine – her use of directional sound (the radio, a passing car) is the best in the theatre; Donna & Tom Ruzika created the lights and Angela Balogh Calin the exquisite period costumes. In fact, South Coast Rep’s production values are consistently the best of any regional theatre in America.

The Trip to Bountiful by Horton Foote at South Coast Repertory – Regional Theater Review by Tony FrankelFoote’s exposition, narrative and richly-drawn characters elevate his story above the trappings of what could have been a maudlin Hallmark remembrance of ages past. Ultimately, the story is about home – how it is perceived and what that represents. Is it a place that so many strive to flee yet spend a lifetime trying to recreate? Does home represent selective memory and the need to sentimentalize youth? Is it where we grew up or is it a spiritual location? Is it a place to which we belong but where we can never go back? Join Carrie on her amazing sojourn and discover for yourself where it is that you belong. The glorious and heartwarming work of Mr. Foote has never felt more like a communal experience. It was as if the play wrapped its arms around the attentive and hushed audience and gently tugged this community of patrons over the proscenium into a wistful world that no longer exists. Or does it? Regardless, Bountiful validates why many return to the theatre over and over again: to them, the theatre is home.

photos by Henry DiRocco/SCR

The Trip to Bountiful
South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa
scheduled to end on November 20
for tickets, visit http://www.scr.org

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