by: Sandi Durell
Horton Foote’s down to earth Texas renderings have always been filled with the folksy kind of everyday people near and dear to our hearts. Bountiful is the epitome of that and has been a vehicle for some of the finest American actors – Lillian Gish, Geraldine Page, Lois Smith – all having relished the classic role of Carrie Watts from the 1953 original. That superb role is now in the gentle but forceful hand of Cicely Tyson (yes, she’s 88 yrs. young) as she skillfully sculpts each emotion.
Carrie has been living in a small apartment in Houston with her loving son Ludie ( Cuba Gooding Jr.- making his Broadway debut), who is continually doing a balancing act to satisfy his sweet mama and his beautiful, self-centered wife Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams). Since he hasn’t been financially successful, they rely on mama’s pension checks to get by.
Before she dies, Carrie longs for another look at her Gulf home town, Bountiful, having been away for 20 years. She has, in the past, left the apartment trying to make her way back but always retrieved by Ludie and Jessie Mae. This time, however, she has hidden her pension check and portrays a good “yes” lady to the iron-fisted Jessie Mae who tries to orchestrate every inch of Carrie’s day to day, including her singing hymns.
When Jessie Mae leaves for a trip to the beauty parlor, and Ludie has left for work, Carrie, with her pre-packed suitcase, leaves for her journey. Ms. Tyson’s portrayal is filled with warmth and simplicity as she makes her way to the bus station and relives her past life and love on the bus trip when she meetis the young, sweet and charming Thelma (Condola Rashad), an Army wife, returning home to stay with her parents while her husband is off in the war. The relationship of a mother-daughter is engagingly evident as Carrie bonds with this young frightened girl, each satisfying the other’s needs.
Perhaps many of the lines are interpreted with more humor than previously recalled, but that, too, is part of the synergy between actor and audience that works. Life’s tensions and dramas are always filled with levity and director Michael Wilson has chosen to use this to advantage. When Jessie Mae is mean to Carrie, the audience responds with clucking annoyance; when Carrie sings her hymns, well, hallelujah, the audience joins right in.
Gooding seems a bit restrained as it takes him time to ease into the role as a stage actor rather than the more familiar camera takes to which he’s accustomed. Adding to the quality of fine acting is the always wonderful Arthur French as the station agent. Tom Wopat portrays a reasonable local sheriff with a heart.
The cramped apartment, bus station and Gulf Coast ramshackle house come alive with Jeff Cowie’s set design, and the period costumes created by Van Broughton Ramsey are particularly lovely on Vanessa Williams.
Delight in the heart-warming heartbreak of this bountiful revival at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
Since the review was written, Cicely Tyson won a Tony for Best Actress in a Revival of a Play.
*Photo Joan Marcus