Friday, February 11, 2011

The Trip to Bountiful, Cleveland Play House

(Lizan Mitchell as Carrie Watts)

Home is where the heart is. Unless it also happens to be down the road a piece and it looks like you can’t get back there from here. We all have attachments to the place we grew up. And whether those memories are pleasant or not, they often color our daily lives.

In The Trip to Bountiful, now at the Cleveland Play House, playwright Horton Foote uses everyday language and mundane events to explore the mystical pull the idea of “home” can exert on a person. And while this production isn’t stellar in all ways, it connects frequently enough to make one reflect on these very personal issues.

Set in the 1940s, Carrie Watts is an elderly lady who wants more than anything to return to Bountiful, the bug-sized Texas town where she was reared. However, she’s stuck in Houston in a small apartment with her protective son Ludie and his brittle and imperious wife Jessie Mae.

We learn that Ludie and Jessie Mae have to keep retrieving Carrie from train and bus stations, to keep her from journeying back home. This aspect of the play has heightened tension in this staging, since the largely African-American cast brings in potential conflicts (a black woman traveling alone in the south) that aren’t present in the original film version.

However, Carrie manages to live out her dream, and that journey and her ultimate realization are what make this play so resonant.

In the lead role of Carrie (for which Gerladine Page won an Oscar in 1985), Lizan Mitchell is a compelling and occasionally amusing presence. Whether sitting stolidly on her rocker in Ludie’s home or quick-stepping through the hallway, Mitchell creates a Carrie we care about.

As the trip unfolds, however, there is less of a cohesive build in Carrie’s character. And some of the extended dialog scenes (particularly a bus ride with new friend Thelma, played by Jessica Frances Dukes) tend to cruise blandly rather than drive towards the ultimate destination.

As Ludie, Howard W. Overshown exudes tenderness towards his mother and a cringing sort of deference to his strong wife. Chinai Hardy has some effective moments as Jessie Mae, but by rushing a number of beats early on, she misses the opportunity to truly flesh out this conflicted woman.

Director Timothy Douglas fits Foote’s lovely and gentle script easily into an African-American context. The result is a production that, while not entirely gripping throughout, finishes strong and serves up a substantial helping of Horton Foote's unique theatrical magic.

The Trip to Bountiful

Through February 27 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

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