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Theater Review:

"THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL" at American Theater Company

BY LUCIA MAURO

An inspiring model of the well-made play, Horton Foote’s "The Trip to Bountiful" encompasses melodically direct language and an eternally dignified theme of one woman’s quest to return to her roots. Set in 1947 Houston, this heartfelt drama with sly comedic underpinnings certainly appeals to the nostalgic at heart. Yet the timeless tenacity of Foote’s elderly heroine, Mrs. Carrie Watts, cannot be relegated to a bygone era.

American Theater Company’s dutifully straightforward staging of "The Trip to Bountiful" reunites the regal and gifted Ann Whitney as Mrs. Watts with Marty Higginbotham as her emotionally exhausted son Ludie. Both starred in a touching Northlight Theatre production of "Driving Miss Daisy" several years ago. So it’s surprising to find their dramatic energies moving in disparate directions: Whitney a piercingly regretful presence with a severity that runs counter to Mrs. Watts’ gently distracted but determined nature; and Higginbotham brow-beaten to the point of invisibility.

These extreme portrayals also serve to undermine the work’s careful balance of moods and circumstances. Director Sarah Whitney (Ann’s daughter) has not effectively tapped into those suggestive and complementary rhythms that make this story so fortifying.

Mrs. Watts, a hardworking farm woman who lived a harsh but fulfilling life on the once-fertile land of Bountiful, Texas, resolves to see her girlhood home before she dies. Confined to a three-room apartment in Houston with her ineffectual but caring son Ludie and his selfish, superficial wife Jessie Mae, Mrs. Watts feels the urgency to breathe the fresh air of her youth.

After a few unsuccessful attempts, she finally breaks free and boards a bus to Bountiful – accompanied for a time by a kind young woman, Thelma, whose husband has just gone off to war. Ludie and Jessie Mae manage to track her down, eventually catching up with her but not before an understanding sheriff escorts Mrs. Watts to the spiritual hearth that once nurtured several generations.

Deeper messages about the dispersing of family around the country; the lack of permanence; and the loss of a solid sense of place are among the play’s most fiercely moving themes.

And, while ATC’s production does not entirely miss the point, it tends to lag while favoring a surprisingly cartoonish tone, which ultimately proves trivial and distracting.

Janelle Snow, a traditionally sensitive and understated actress, transforms the irksome, abusive but sadly lost Jessie Mae into a fidgety comic-relief device. We need to see Jessie Mae undergo quite a marked transformation, even if that transformation is a bit strained, in order to believe that Mrs. Watts’ desperate journey will have a positive impact on the next generation. Jessie Mae is more than a snippy little viper. She must come to terms with her own low self-esteem, crushed dreams and excruciating boredom. Higginbotham, much too lethargic as Ludie, provides his character with few tangible dimensions.

Ann Whitney, a fiery and elegant presence, can take more nuanced risks with Mrs. Watts. Amy Rafa, while embodying the requisite sweetness of Thelma, is almost too angelic to be believed. And the supporting cast – including Ron Wells and Tom Geraty -- resort to an uncomfortable degree of small-town cliches right out of Mayberry.
However, Keith Pitts’ naturalistic set embodies just the right touch of ramshackle, infused with Darin Keesing’s mood-engulfing lighting and Lindsay Jones’ delicate memory-laced original music/sound design.

But, as a whole, this theatrical trip to Bountiful makes too many laborious stops before reaching its final illuminating destination.

"The Trip to Bountiful" runs through May 26 at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron (at Lincoln). Tickets: $25-$30. Call 773-929-1031 or log onto www.atcweb.org.

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