It's not the first time in the past 20 years that Carrie Mae has tried to return to the now-empty town. But she has, at long last, successfully run away from the tiny Houston apartment she begrudgingly shares with her henpecked son, Ludie (Cuba Gooding Jr.), and his wife, Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams). And the moment she steps onto that land and sees her house (beautifully rendered by Jeff Cowie), Carrie Mae almost instantly becomes lighter and younger. We watch years of regret and worry melt away from her body, soon to be replaced by a sense of contentment one can only envy.
Watching Tyson tread the Broadway boards for the first time in 30 years — at the hard-to-believe age of 88 — is reason enough to go. And it's even better that she's giving this well-worn character a different interpretation. One of the most notable of facets of Wilson's slightly sentimental production is that while Tyson portrays Carrie as a suitably feisty, sly old gal, the actress doesn't play the part with quite as much overt bitterness as predecessors Geraldine Page (who won the Oscar for the 1985 film version) or Lois Smith (of Signature Theatre's heralded 2005 Off-Broadway production). The warmth Tyson emanates in many of her scenes — especially those with the nuanced Condola Rashad (as fellow-bus traveler, Thelma) — makes us root for her homecoming all the more.
Even better, there is some real affection between Carrie and her daughter-in-law. Williams, who in Van Broughton Ramsey's form-fitting outfits still looks like she could be crowned Miss America, doesn't shy away from showing us Jessie Mae's less-than-admirable qualities: her vanity, her self-absorption, her impatience. But Williams exhibits a genuine concern for Carrie Mae's well-being. We also see the real philosophical differences between the two women: Jessie Mae lives solely for the present while Carrie is mired in the past, with Ludie caught somewhere in the middle.
There is also a touch more humor in Tyson's performance than has been seen before, though she can break your heart with a single look and gesture. And her connection with the audience is electrifying. She practically encourages everyone in the theater to sing along (which many did enthusiastically) as she belts out a church hymn — perhaps the only time I was truly aware of the nontraditional casting. Even the eventual presence of a white sheriff, memorably played by Tom Wopat, doesn't feel jarring.
Like many of Foote's plays, The Trip to Bountiful can seem slight and even meandering in its first act. But by the end, it's a journey you wouldn't haven't missed taking.