For the late playwright Horton Foote (1916-2009), living long was the best revenge. In his extended career, he was in and out of fashion, and despite winning Pulitzer Prizes, that meant mostly out. In his later years, like opening a play on Broadway when he was 92, people began to revalue his work upward. Instead of being seen as a marginal jack-of-all-trades, he came to be thought of as an unappreciated American Chekhov with Tender Mercies, after Foote’s Academy Award-winning 1983 film script.
His earlier stage works are being revived and also his television scripts, which is where The Trip to Bountiful first appeared in 1953, when the medium was golden rather than cool. Written for former silent film star Lillian Gish when she was 60, The Trip to Bountiful caused a sensation when first broadcast and, truthfully, has never really been forgotten. It is usually ranked among the five top Golden Age TV dramas along with William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty, and Rod Serling’s Patterns and Requiem for a Heavyweight, just before the medium slid into the vast wasteland.
All the Golden Age dramas are a bit old-fashioned structurally, but they are all about real people facing everyday crises. Further, they are all idealistic attempts to make the best writing accessible to a mass public. What we know today that we didn’t know 60 years ago is that The Trip to Bountiful is the subtlest, most ironic, most poetic and most powerful of them all. And it works so much better on stage, especially as the season finale at Ithaca’s Hangar Theatre, than it ever did on the screen.
Bountiful’s deceptively undramatic plot gives no hints of Foote’s ambitious thematic aims. We begin thinking he is portraying a possibly tetched old lady with harebrained notions, but before we’re done we’re thinking about memory, history and self-worth.
Carrie Watts (Susannah Berryman) is an aged widow receiving a regular pension but still forced to live with her weak-willed son Ludie (Jesse Bush) and his bossy, indolent wife Jessie Mae (Sarah K. Chalmers) in their cramped Houston apartment. Weary of the daily humiliations she suffers, Carrie resolves to break free and return to the village of Bountiful, where she used to live, and began to raise her family. She has less than $4 in small change, and the bus company no longer cites the place on its routes, but she departs. Along the way she really does rely on the kindness of strangers, but we are always doubtful what, if anything, she will find when she gets to Bountiful.
Director Stephanie Yankwitt has selected a cast of Ithaca all-stars for the principal roles, people with much experience at the Hangar as well as the Kitchen Theatre Company. These players know how to bounce off each other, and have also attracted admiring followers.
Sarah K. Chalmers, known for hard-edged characterizations, gives us a Jessie Mae who’s a monstress of banality. Addicted to nothing worse than the beauty parlor, movie magazines and drinking Coca-Cola, she presents herself as a champion or order and reasonableness. But the action reveals her petty and dishonest cruelty is calculated to make her mother-in-law look senile. Nurse Ratched, move over.
The accountant son Ludie, just recovered from two years of illness, presents a greater challenge, partially because his big speeches do not come until the end. Jesse Bush, an actor of well-tested resources, solves this with telling silences when he should be speaking, a kind of resonant impotence. We’re sure he has words but just won’t bring them to the surface. Foote’s script introduces a silent device to underscore Carrie’s disappointment in her son, a kind of barefoot Huck Finn who is an impersonation of the Young Ludie (Vincent Hannam), who calls her back to Bountiful.
That the role of Carrie is a great challenge for an actress of a certain age is hardly news. The much-nominated Geraldine Page won her only Academy Award for her Carrie in director Peter Masterson’s 1985 film version, an indie production that had a hard time getting funding. At the center of her character is a paradox. She’s a heroic fool, 20 steps removed from Don Quixote. To a degree, some of Lillian Gish’s fingerprints remain on Carrie. Still girlish well into her 80s, her Carrie in the TV program looked to be entering into a second childhood. Berryman never mimics Gish, but she knows how to strike those notes by running around the apartment with a playful hop and bursting into unbridled laughter at things that are not so funny.
In the film Page added her own patented loopiness. Berryman will have none of that. Her Carrie has the innocence but also the determination of a pilgrim. When confronted by the law on the last leg of her journey she roars, “No sheriff, king or president is going to stop me from getting there.”
Although no one would suggest that Carrie is a stand-in for playwright Foote, there are elements of autobiography in many of his plays. Significantly, Carrie’s last stop before Bountiful is the fictional town of Harrison, his favorite venue for action. When Carrie yearns for the lost pastoralism of her childhood, of sustainable family farms, she speaks to jaded city folks and even sophisticates in an affluent college town. Carrie adds to this that the love of her life (certainly not her husband) lived there, and continued to walk by her house even after they were forbidden to marry.
One of Foote’s rare gifts is his ability to make goodness plausible and interesting. He wrote the film script for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and the recent placement of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch on a commemorative stamp, could be seen as a tribute to the playwright. In her quest, Carrie befriends a young married woman, Thelma (Sarah Charles), wearing white gloves and a pillbox hat. She speaks of the love she shares with her husband Robert, and gladly listens to Carrie singing her favorite hymn, something Jessie Mae cannot abide. The night clerk (Dane Cruz) in Harrison does not scold Carrie for leaving her purse on the bus, and cheerfully calls ahead to the next station. Even the Sheriff (R.M. Fury), sent to hold her, allows for a brief moment of reprieve.
A series of omens signal that Bountiful is certain to disappoint Carrie. But Brian Prather’s set design, taking motifs from Andrew Wyeth and evocatively lighted by Driscoll Otto, fulfills her dream.
Susannah Berryman teaches acting at Ithaca College, and on regional stages she has enjoyed many triumphs, such as
Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. This time out she tops herself with tenderness and silliness, poignancy and power.
This production runs through Saturday, Sept. 15. See Times Table for information.