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“The Trip to Bountiful” is a sentimental journey, but with Cicely Tyson driving the bus, it’s a ride worth taking. Of course, since Horton Foote’s play is set in the Jim Crow South of 1953 and was originally written for white actors, Tyson and a mostly black cast commandeer the back of the bus in the Michael Wilson-directed revival that won the star of “Sounder” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” a Tony Award in 2013. Wilson’s production, in which Tyson garners able support from Vanessa Williams and Blair Underwood, first became a 2014 television movie and has now been reconfigured for the stage by Jonathan Reinis Productions and Los Angeles’s Center Theatre Group. It holds forth here at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre (through Dec. 7), courtesy of ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage.
The world on stage at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic is an insular, old-fashioned one redolent, like most of the Pulitzer- and Oscar-winning Foote’s work, of the genteel if eccentric East Texas in which he came of age. Though far from the writer’s finest play (those came 40 years later), “The Trip to Bountiful,” which originated as a 1953 teleplay starring onetime silent screen actress Lillian Gish, is perhaps his best known.
That’s thanks to the 1985 film that starred Geraldine Page as Mrs. Carrie Watts, cooped up in a two-room Houston apartment with her middle-aged son and his badgering wife, despairing of ever making it back to the crumbling home in the moribund town of the title, where she spent her girlhood and most of her independent life. (Bountiful was inspired by the nowhere burg of East Columbia, Texas, where Foote’s great-grandparents’ home just slipped into the Brazos River like Ophelia.)
The idea to recast “Bountiful” with black actors while retaining the 1950s setting (with, for example, its separate bus-station waiting areas for whites and “colored”) originated with Foote’s daughter and stalwart interpreter, actress Hallie Foote. Being of Caucasian persuasion, she didn’t get to be in it, but the cast does include, in addition to its stars, Foote son-in-law Devon Abner as a Houston ticket agent and the sympathetic if imposing sheriff of Harrison, the Texas town that in the playwright’s works stands in for his native Wharton (in the soil of which the octogenarian Tyson found it necessary to plant her feet before shouldering the role of Carrie). It is this nameless lawman who finally ferries Tyson’s frail slip of an Odysseus back to Bountiful to recharge, however briefly, her sense of dignity and peace.
But “The Trip to Bountiful” does not begin with the trip; it opens in the dowdy confines of the Houston flat, its dearth of privacy emphasized in Jeff Cowie’s cutaway set by the lack of a wall between son Ludie and daughter-in-law Jessie Mae’s bedroom and the parlor where Carrie sleeps (or doesn’t, as is more often the case, the bullied matriarch preferring to spend her nights humming hymns, thumbing her Bible, and looking out the window past the urban landscape toward Bountiful).
In this stifling milieu, Tyson’s Carrie, albeit plotting her escape, appears worn out if not yet resigned to life in a frowsy pink bathrobe and jail. Williams plays Jessie Mae, who’s more interested in the old lady’s pension check than in “Mother Watts” herself, with an apt mix of myopic vanity and justified frustration. (And if she’s a bit wired, consider the number of Coca Colas she drinks.) Underwood, for his part, is a foursquare if pent-up Ludie caught between female forces neither of which he feels he can satisfy. As befits Foote’s reputation as the humane and compassionate Chekhov of the Lone Star state, none of these folks is a villain – though Williams give the audience a preening woman it loves to hate.
Wilson, who has directed numerous Foote works including “Dividing the Estate” on Broadway and the epic “Orphans’ Home Cycle” for New York’s Signature Theater, developed both a friendship with Foote (who died in 2009 at the age of 92) and a reputation for being a sharp, sensitive purveyor of his work. For my taste, the director puts too much emphasis on the Ma-Kettle-outfoxes-the-young-‘uns comedy of “Bountiful” ’s early scenes, which find Tyson bent and scooting about the apartment like a cramped ferret. But once Carrie’s on the lam, the show takes on just the right tone of desperate freedom at war with despair. And Tyson gets to rock both some rousing gospel and grief.
The best parts occur on the bus ride to Harrison (there is no public transport to the withered Bountiful), wherein Carrie shares confidences with a nice young woman whose serviceman husband has just been shipped overseas, and in the middle of the night at the Harrison station where, so near her goal, Carrie becomes giddy enough to burst out in a hurdy-gurdy rendition of her favorite hymn. Tyson’s character virtually reels as joy and bad news assail her right and left. She receives kindly, buoying support, however, from Jurnee Smollett-Bell, tentative yet radiant as young bus mate Thelma, and Arthur French as a grizzled station attendant.
Only near-collapse buys Carrie a hitch to Bountiful, where Tyson greets Cowie’s fairy-tale rendition of sunrise, prairie grass, and vine-supported ramshackle porch with a smile bigger than she is. The return to her decaying Eden can’t last, of course. Ludie (for whom hearkening back to happier times is painful) and that fancy-pants snake in the grass Jessie Mae are on their way with the paddy wagon. But here the magnificent Tyson conveys all the ways in which briefly embracing the ghost of the past is – and isn’t – enough.