The lives of ordinary people make for extraordinary theater in Horton Foote’s 1953 drama The Trip To Bountiful, revived to perfection at South Coast Repertory under the delicately shaded direction of Martin Benson.

40something Ludie Watts (Daniel Reichert) shares a small three-room apartment with his wife Jessie Mae (Jennifer Lyon) and his elderly widowed mother Carrie (Lynn Milgrim), but to say that the threesome live in any kind of harmony would be a lie. Milquetoast Ludie finds himself torn between his shrewish, self-involved spouse and his fragile, hymn-singing Momma with no solution in immediate sight. He can hardly make ends meet even combining his salary with his mother’s monthly pension check, which Jessie Mae immediately pockets, the better to pay for her movie magazines and beauty shop appointments. The spats between Jessie Mae and Carrie are never-ending, a number of them provoked by Carrie’s insistence that her son allow her to pay a return visit to Bountiful, the small coastal town that represents for her everything she’s lost in her life—“the river, the woods, the fields, the smell of the Gulf. That’s what I took my strength from, not from houses, not from people.”

As the play’s title indicates, Carrie does indeed take that trip to Bountiful, Foote’s exquisite play taking us along with her, and in the process introduces us to Thelma (Lily Holleman), a young fellow traveler; to a trio of Greyhound ticket agents (Tom Shelton, Mark Coyan, and Richard Doyle); and to a small town Sheriff (Hal Landon Jr.) with the power to dash Carrie’s dream with a phone call, or to become her helpmate.

The Trip To Bountiful could easily have inspired the country song, “They Don’t Write ’Em Like That Anymore.” Leisurely paced and told in three acts, which South Coast Rep has skillfully divided into two of almost equal length, Foote’s drama sneaks up on you. The Watts family may not at first seem like folks worthy of a 2¼-hour play, let alone one which debuted on Broadway with stars the luster of Lillian Gish, Jo Van Fleet, and Eva Marie Saint (the original Carrie, Jessie Mae, and Thelma), but give it a chance and you will likely find yourself drawn into these ordinary lives and enriched by the experience.

Geraldine Page won the Oscar for her performance as Carrie in the 1985 film adaptation, an indication of just how great a role Foote wrote for an actress “of a certain age,” and the divine Milgrim plays her for all she’s worth. Yes, Carrie can grate on your nerves, as she does on Jessie Mae’s, but she can just as easily tug on your heartstrings, and by play’s end, you might just want to invite her over for a stay, provided as Jessie Mae insists, that she only sing her hymns when you’re out of the house.

Reichert was so convincing as a 1930s New York Jew in A Noise Within’s revival of Clifford Odets’ Awake And Sing that it comes as an astonishing realization that the same actor is playing the folksy Texan Ludie. Reichert’s multilayered work reveals a man torn between two women he loves, hard pressed to pay the rent and keep his wife supplied with fan magazines, and deeply frustrated with his go-nowhere job.

Lyon once again proves herself a consummate acting chameleon, morphing from Noises Off’s ditzy, dim-witted Blake and Crimes Of The Heart’s larger-than-life would-be singing star Meg into The Trip To Bountiful’s selfish, bitchy Jessie Mae, a role that Lyon invests with so much humor and humanity that she becomes the harpy we love to hate—and actually enjoy spending time with.

An excellent Holleman makes for a sweet, kind-hearted, caring Thelma. Shelton and Coyan do first-rate work as well, and SCR Founding Artists are perfection as a pair of grizzled Texans whose lives and hearts get touched by Carrie. Ensemble members Sam Carter, Sharyn Case, Debbie Fry, and Greg Ungar do fine background work, adding just the right local color when needed.

The Trip To Bountiful’s many scene changes might prove problematic to a theater lacking South Coast Rep’s considerable resources. Here, they simply give scenic designer Thomas Buderwitz a chance to dazzle us with one detailed set after another, scene changes taking place lickety-split before our eyes. Angela Balough Calin’s costumes are superbly designed early 1950s Lone Star State creations. Donna and Tom Ruzika’s subtly-detailed lighting design is their accustomed fine work. Cricket S. Myers’ sound design is another winner from the Tony nominee, setting place and mood and time. Joshua Marchesi is production manager. Chrissy Church is stage manager.

Yes, indeed, they don’t write ‘em like The Trip To Bountiful anymore, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be staging ‘em—as South Coast Repertory’s profoundly moving revival makes clear nearly six decades after Horton Foote’s slice of Texas life first saw the light of (a bountiful) day.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
November 1, 2011
Photos: Henry DiRocco/SCR

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