Lois Smith, Devon Abner, and Hallie Foote in The Trip to Bountiful
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Lois Smith, Devon Abner, and Hallie Foote
in The Trip to Bountiful
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Some people consider Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful to be sentimental and/or maudlin. Well, I won't have it, do you hear? Yes, there's a line of dialogue in the work -- which first aired in 1953 on the Goodyear Television Playhouse -- that explains such a reaction. Mrs. Carrie Watts, the aging woman who finally makes a journey to the home where she grew up, says: "Maybe the need to belong to a house and a family and a town has gone from the rest of the world."

She is noticing that sensibilities and mentalities change, sometimes not for the better. This shouldn't come as news in a world where disconnect is common. It's possible that things have changed too much for some theatergoers to appreciate this conventionally constructed play about a woman fighting to maintain her dignity though forced to live in two Houston rooms with a disappointed son and a harridan daughter-in-law. If this is the case, the loss is worth mourning -- and the Signature Theatre Company's current production of The Trip to Bountiful is to be cherished.

The ceaseless urge that Mrs. Watts (Lois Smith) experiences to return to Bountiful, the small Texas town she lived in for more than half of her life, has caused her kind but weak son Ludie (Devon Abner) and his insensitive wife, Jessie Mae (Hallie Foote), to forbid her escape. Jessie Mae has gone so far as to tell the man at the drugstore not to cash the old woman's pension check. But the day comes when Mrs. W. finally eludes her vigilant keepers and gets herself on the bus to Harrison, a town 12 miles from Bountiful. Along the way, she encounters the young and sweet Thelma (Meghan Andrews), whose husband has just gone into the army; a trio of ticket clerks (Gene Jones, Sam Kitchen, Frank Girardeau), and ultimately, the sympathetic Harrison sheriff (Jim Demarse), who escorts her to her destination.

As with all Foote scripts, the unspoken subject of this one can neatly be summed up in the title of his 1983 Oscar-winning screenplay Tender Mercies. The nearly 90-year-old dramatist- -- who habitually draws his inspiration from the myriad stories he heard growing up in Wharton, Texas -- incorporates harsh behavior into his plots but frames them with overarching grace. His portrait of Carrie Watts squirreling away her pension check and running through her son's apartment as if chased by hard times is tempered with understanding. He also manages to see the buried good in Jessie Mae, for whom only movie magazines hold any interest. Even Ludie, who has trouble confronting his wife, gets to explain his deep-seated woe. Asked by his mother to explain why he won't enter the old homestead, he replies, "I want to stop remembering. It doesn't do any good to remember."

When The Trip to Bountiful debuted on television with Lillian Gish as Carrie and Eva Marie Saint, Eileen Heckart, and John Beal playing the other major roles, it was a mere 56 minutes long and primarily a stunning character study. When Gish's Carrie, believing that she wasn't going to reach her home, cried, "Bountiful, Bountiful, Bountiful," early television drama hit a high point -- one that hasn't often been surpassed since. (Gish recreated the role on Broadway later that year in a production that used the expanded script employed here, but the show lasted a mere 39 performances.) In the 1985 film version, Geraldine Page -- in a role for which she received an Academy Award -- reached her peak when staggering upon hearing the news that her best friend, Callie Davis, had only just died.

To the Signature production, Lois Smith brings the luminescence that she brings to every project in which she's involved, though not often enough in such a pivotal role. Thick-bodied in the cheap housedresses that costumer Martin Pakledinaz has picked for her, she's childish, spiteful, and frightened during the early scenes, then brightens in a speech where Mrs. Watts -- who enjoys singing the hymns that her daughter-in-law disdains -- says to the concerned Thelma, "I guess the good Lord is just with me today. I wonder why the Lord isn't with us every day. It would be so nice if he was." Then she casts an accusatory gaze upward. The play's final scene, which occurs in front of a ramshackle house designed by E. David Cosier, is exquisitely acted by all. Smith, for her part, is trascendent in a way that gets noticed at awards time.

Hallie Foote has the difficult assignment of keeping the nagging, critical Jessie Mae from becoming merely a caricature, as she was when Heckart played her on television. The sharp-featured actress is fine when snapping at her mother-in-law and eventually submitting to her husband's demands that she soften her attitude. Abner brings modulation to the part of Ludie, a profoundly disappointed man who reclaims his own misplaced dignity. As Thelma, the benevolent traveling companion, Andrews is exactly what Mrs. Watts says of her: "sweet and considerate and thoughtful. And pretty." Harris Yulin has directed the play with compassion and tenderness equal to the playwright's. More than 50 years after Horton Foote wrote The Trip to Bountiful, his understanding of broken hearts and what breaks them is still extraordinary.