By Patrick Hurley
There is an old storytelling trope, the one that says, you can never go home again. Whether or not we agree, one thing seems for certain, the most important aspect of going home is the journey. Horton Foote’s play The Trip to Bountiful, playing now at the Ahmanson Theatre is all about such a journey.
Mrs. Carrie Watts (Cicely Tyson), an old southern woman, living with her son Ludie (Blair Underwood), and his disagreeable wife Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams), has a wish to visit her home before she dies. Living in Houston and ill-contented with her current situation, Mrs. Watts sneaks away to fulfill her own dying wish. Her old family home sits in the middle of a town called Bountiful, a town no one seems to have ever heard of. At the bust stop in Houston she meets a young woman named Thelma (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and the two become quick friends. They share personal stories on the bus ride from Houston to Harrison—the nearest town to Bountiful that the bus goes to—and then Carrie finds herself alone, desperate to figure out a way to finish her journey.
The catharsis of reaching one’s home, the place where most of our memories take place, is usually greeted in one of two ways, deep nostalgia, or indifference. For Ludie, the idea of dredging up the past is a waste of time. He sees life as unchangeable, and therefore all the past can do is create regret and remorse, and he fights against it. In a sense, Ludie is pragmatic and Carrie is emotional, and the difficulties that arise in communication between the two creates a nicely conflicted final scene.
And then there’s Jessie Mae, who seems to be disagreeable to anything having to do with Carrie. The two are combative at all turns, and a reconciliation between them seems impossible. But Mr. Foote is a playwright who likes to see his characters change. In the face of obstacles, it seems that he likes to believe the best in people. There are changes, small and large, in all three of the main characters in this play, and some of the changes are expected, while others are subtly surprising. But all of the moments that lead to these changes feel earned, and that’s what really makes them resonate.
Director Michael Watson very astutely recognizes the quietness of this play. That is to say, that there are beautifully staged moments of stillness, of reflection, moments where two characters sit and chat in the back of a bus on a starry night, and it’s sublime. He also makes the very wise decision to allow his cast to play to their individual strengths, and there is a nice separation of energy that pushes and pulls the play in many different directions. For example, the opening scene has a very nervous and jittery Carrie, which Ms. Tyson hams up to adorable perfection, an irritated Jessie Mae, whose voice has volume that seems to work like a tide, it goes up and then it comes back down at seemingly random intervals that change the pace and focus of the show. Same with Ludie, who has a quietness about him that sometimes disappears behind his utter frustration with the two women in his life. It plays out like a choreographed dance to wonderful effect.
The sets are incredible. Designer Jeff Cowie works wonders with each and every one of them. There are details about each set that make them stand far apart from a standard piece. The windows that hang above the Watts’ apartment in scene one, were such a clever and nicely balanced addition. The perspective of the background painting of the bus station in Houston, how it seemed to be a three dimensional addition to this wonderfully authentic world. The bus itself was marvelous, something as simple as allowing it to look genuine, added to the verisimilitude of the piece. The final house, with its vine covered, dilapidated porch was perfect. We see how the past never fully lives up to what it actually was. It always seems different, smaller than we remember, and this house is a physical reminder of time.
The costumes, designed by Van Broughton Ramsey, were spectacular. Perfect recreations of the early 1950s. The entire look of this play, because of the sets and costumes has a built-in nostalgia factor, something that only serves to heighten the material.
The entire ensemble for this production is flawless. Each capturing the essence of, not only the era, but of the great thematic elements of loss, regret, rebirth, and forgiveness that this play touches on. Cicely Tyson, in particular, is downright miraculous. She is a fearless performer, with such a capacity for evoking an audience that we will follow her anywhere. It is a true joy, and an honor watching her work.
Blair Underwood is quietly effective as Ludie. He knows when to pull back and when to let go, and the moments between him and Carrie at the end of the play are a much bigger payoff because of it.
Vanessa Williams perfectly embodies Jessie Mae’s disagreeable, and often hilarious demeanor. And not without cause. She is capable of bitchy and empathetic all at once, and we can sort of feel sorry for her, sometimes. It’s a nice nuance with a part like this, rather than just going for all the easy laughs.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell is so very good as Thelma. The sincerity in her performance makes you forget it is a performance. She touches upon the quiet expectations of a woman of her time, while at the same time infusing a longing for affection giving her a vulnerability that is palpable.
This production deals with a very traditional play, in a very traditional setting, with beauty and grace. It creates an authentic 1950s feel, with a cast that brings it to incredibly believable life.
The Trip to Bountiful
By Horton Foote
Directed by Michael Wilson
The Ahmanson Theatre
Through November 2.
Performance Days and Times
Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m.
Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.;
Sunday at 1 p.m.
No Monday performances
Added 6:30 p.m. performance on Sundays, October 5 and 19;
Added 2 p.m. performance on Thursday, October 30; No 1 p.m. performance
on Sundays, October 5 and 19. No 8 p.m. performance on Tuesday, October 28.
$25 – $125
(Ticket prices are subject to change.)
are available Online at
Group Sales: 213.972.7231
information and charge:
Center Theatre Group
Ahmanson Theatre at 135 N. Grand Ave.
In downtown Los Angeles at the Music Center.