7 March 2003: Foote, The Trip to Bountiful

Hartford Stage. Alley Theatre production. Fiftieth anniversary production

Rather slow going in the first act, as Foote sets up the situation of a family of three, the childless couple Ludie and Jessie Mae Watts and Ludie’s old mother, Carrie, living in Houston in a two-room apartment, as Ludie gets back on his feet after a two-year illness. Carrie is strong-minded and wily, and she yearns to go back to Bountiful, where she was born, grew up, and had her family, of which only Ludie has survived. Carrie has secreted her pension check from Jessie Mae, planning to use it to finance a trip back to Bountiful to see her one remaining friend and the house she used to own and live in. She packs her suitcase in the dead of night and sneaks off the next day when Jessie Mae has gone off to the drugstore for Cok’cola. She escapes on a bus, is befriended by Thelma, a young woman whose husband has been shipped overseas and who is going to stay with her parents until he comes back. The kindly sheriff of Harrison also befriends her and takes her to her old house in Bountiful. Her son and his shrewish wife arrive to take her back to Houston, and, having recovered the “dignity” she sought in revisiting the past and standing in her house once more, she agrees to Jessie Mae’s list of peremptory demands. They return to Houston.

Such is the low-key, almost intrigue-less action that makes up this somewhat Chekhovian comedy, whose dominant tone is wistfulness, punctuated by Jessie Mae’s grating nasality and her feckless husband’s low-grade depression. Close scrutiny of the everyday for what it yields in the basic truths of human existence is Foote’s strong suit. The pace picks up some in Act II, as Carrie’s strength of will and determination to get what she wants take her further than the $3 .50 bus ticket she buys with nickels and dimes at the Houston bus station ever could. What is partly Chekhovian about this play is its frame of an arrival, a sojourn, and a departure; Foote’s variation on that plan is to show us an opening sequence based in exile and a yearning to return to roots, to origins — a kind of first inverse corollary to the plan of, say, Three Sisters. But it is un-Chekhovian in focusing on a single protagonist, and even more deeply un-Chekhovian in its realization of a kind of happiness, a sort of fulfillment and content, in place of the sense of irremediable loss that echoes with the sound of the axe and breaking string at the end of The Cherry Orchard and the military band at the end of Three Sisters. Foote is no ironist, nor is he a sardonic humorist, like Chekhov; but he is a master of local color whose long view of family and generational cycles prevents his play from dissipating its considerable élan in maudlin sentiment. The end of the play occurs in the early hours of the morning (the lighting made it look like noon, almost, a mistake in tonality that surprised me, considering how careful Michael Wilson, the director, usually is about such things), and as Foote construes it it is the beginning of a new day.

The performances are all good, most of them very good. Devon Abner is a seasoned performer of Foote plays, though this role has a certain thankless quality to it; despite the raise Ludie has won from his employer, we can’t help thinking he may never thrive so long as he is attached to the shallow, useless, carping Jessie Mae, who is enough to make almost any man take to his bed and pull the covers over his head. Hallie Foote, presumably Foote’s daughter, has the unremittingly nasal, angular, treble clef music of south Texas in her voice and is in all other ways the frighteningly believable dominating, surly wife of a man who perhaps deserves no better but would be far better off with a mate instead of this petty monster. Dee Maaske is really quite wonderful, even if she has to be in order to carry this play on her broad shoulders, as she does. She has the involuntary quirks and mannerisms of this doughty old lady at the level of instinct, and she establishes a level of interested sympathy as a magnetic attraction for the audience fairly early on and never relinquishes it. But Wilson never goes overboard, never allows any of these characters to begin to stereotype themselves, maintaining a viable tonal balance throughout. The surprise of the evening is Michelle Federer’s winsome Thelma, beautifully dressed in a just-off-the-rack yellow suit, a perfect dream of a homecoming outfit that suffers not a crease in her long bus ride from Houston to Harrison. Federer plays this unlikely friend in need just exactly right, a true sweetheart of a girl to whom any service man would count himself lucky to return.

Tone, in fact, is absolutely crucial in every aspect of this play, and Wilson gets it all just right (except for the afore-mentioned morning scene, where I would have wanted to get a sense of mist rising as a hot Texas sun promised another day to be endured). One is thankful for small things, when it comes to a play by Horton Foote, who is not, finally, the American Chekhov, but for all that is an authentic miniaturist, perhaps the only true one we have in twentieth-century drama, except perhaps for some plays by Lanford Wilson, another underrated dramatist whom Michael Wilson would do well to consider reviving at Hartford Stage, even as Lanford Wilson undergoes something of a renewal currently on the off-Broadway stage with Fifth of July.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book