“The Trip to Bountiful” at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, located at 124 W. 43rd St. in Manhattan, is really Cicely Tyson’s own vehicle. Yes, Cuba Gooding and Vanessa Williams are definitely holding up their end in support of Tyson, but it is Tyson who makes this play so grand.
In her 80s, Tyson is as young as springtime and makes “The Trip to Bountiful” (through the character Carrie Watts) an amazing journey for the audience, who get so involved in the play they sing a hymn along with Tyson. They groan when she groans and laugh at her feisty nature. Tyson is the driving force behind “The Trip to Bountiful” and we love her charm. The entire cast makes this play what it is and deserved the standing ovation at the end.
Oscar winner Cuba Gooding plays the henpecked Ludie Watts, son of Carrie and husband of Jessie Mae Watts (Williams), who Carrie loves. She prays Ludie will one day find his backbone to face Jessie Mae. Grammy-nominated Williams is wonderful as the beautiful but nagging, ball-busting, Social Security check-collecting pain in Carrie’s neck. Jessie Mae is irritated by everything Carrie does, including singing hymns and run-walking.
Poor Carrie lives in Jessie Mae’s house and is treated like a child, so she hasn’t much to say. She dreams of returning to her childhood hometown Bountiful, Texas, which she hasn’t visited in over 20 years. Several attempts to get to Bountiful were thwarted by Ludie and Jessie out of concern for Carrie’s health and just because work in Houston occupies Ludie’s time.
Ludie is not unsympathetic to his mother’s quest to go to Bountiful, but sees no point in returning to a rundown house and property that no one has maintained for years. He tries to keep the peace, but it’s a thankless job.
Clever as she can be, Carrie finally makes her escape and boards a bus to Harrison, the closest town, 12 miles from Bountiful, where she hopes to get a connection to her destination. She meets the sweet and helpful Thelma, a young bride whose husband is off to war. Thelma (Condola Rashad) helps Carrie board the bus, keeping Carrie’s secret when Ludie and Jessie come down to the bus station in search of Carrie. Thelma becomes Carrie’s bus companion and the two of them forge a friendship.
Veteran actor Arthur French plays the Harrison ticket agent, who helps to locate the purse Carrie loses on the bus and allows her to sleep in the station because Carrie has no way to cash her check. Unfortunately, it is while she is sleeping that the local sheriff catches up with her and refuses to allow her to travel further until Ludie and Jessie Mae arrive to pick her up at the station. Tom Wopat, who we remember best from “The Dukes of Hazzard,” plays the sheriff.
So close and only 12 miles to go, Carrie is upset that she cannot see her childhood home or visit her childhood friend, who dies only a few days before Carrie arrives. She implores the sheriff to take her those 12 miles. At first, he refuses but eventually relents. While both Carrie and the house have seen better days, they are remarkably preserved and delighted to be reacquainted. While we worry about Carrie’s health, we see that the trip has given Carrie a second wind and new lease on life. Her dream fulfilled, she is willing to return to Houston with Ludie and Jessie Mae and forge a less combative relationship with Jessie Mae, who comes to see how important the trip was to Carrie.
Written by Horton Foote, directed by Michael Wilson and in association with Kevin Liles, Joseph Sirola, Stephen Byrd/Alai M. Joes, Howard and Janet Kagan, Charles Salameno, Willette Murphy Klauser, Hailie Foot and Fifty Church Street productions, “The Trip to Bountiful” is simply wonderful and I can see it getting nominated for a Tony.
Go see it at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre; you will be glad you did.