If she felt like it, and didn't possess impeccable taste and restraint, Cicely Tyson could really swan it up as Mrs. Carrie Watts, the homesick old woman at the center of The Trip to Bountiful, now enjoying a superlative revival 60 years after its Broadway debut.
Under director Michael Wilson’s steady hand, the entire cast keeps a lid on the play’s innate pathos, rendering it all the more powerful. Vanessa Williams is nicely reined in as Mrs. Watts’ live-in daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae. Although her portrayal is forceful and well defined, Williams stops shy of making this vain, petty domestic despot an outright monster. Cuba Gooding, Jr. is almost frustratingly subdued as husband/son Ludie Watts, but the character is in an untenable position, caught (indeed, crushed) between spousal demands and filial duty. As for Condola Rashad, playing a sweet young woman with whom Carrie passes an adventurous night, she simply glows. She has only to widen her eyes, and we see right inside Thelma’s soul.
Surely credit for this affecting emotional journey lies with the late playwright Horton Foote, who succeeded in compacting a lifetime's worth of loss and longing in a seemingly simple tale with universal resonance. The transposition, in this production, from Caucasian to African American causes scarcely a ripple. If anything, it deepens the impression that we’re seeing in these characters the most elemental of human drives, which know no cultural boundaries.
The plot is simplicity itself. Carrie, knowing that her time on earth is approaching an end, yearns for one last glimpse of her childhood home in the rural Texas town of Bountiful. After 20 years displaced in a crowded Houston apartment – the past 15 of them in virtual lockup with the bossy Jessie Mae – Carrie looks to her birthplace as a kind of self-promised land. Lacking a lineage to carry forward the chain of memory, she craves this vestige of the past as a kind of validation for having lived.
Does Carrie truly believe, as she confides to her young traveling companion, that once there she can pick up the traces of her old life? She’s not senile – far from it. Scheming and scampering with a sense of mission when making her escape, she’s a strategist of the first rank. Yet she is not reasonable, and on some level she must know so.
Tom Wopat puts in a touching cameo as a sheriff who, against his initial instinct, acts with compassion. And to see Carrie reach her goal, or at least come close, is to participate in an act of joyous transcendence. If a tear of shared triumph does not come to your eye, you’d best check your heart for calcification – or ponder more deeply whether it’s time for you, too, to consider what it means to head home.