Trip to Bountiful at ACT in Seattle Review by Peg Doman
ACT Theatre’s “Trip to Bountiful” is a beautiful production. The first play of the new season dedicated to an exploration of the women’s lives and “particular emphasis of the place of women in our culture”, is funny, infuriating and very interesting. The direction is spotless; Horton Foote’s characters are true to themselves; Marianne Owen is the embodiment of Carrie Watts, complete with cotton hose that wrinkle and bag at the ankles; and the magnificent set is magical when it needs to be. You can take it from this that I enjoyed the production.
Foote wrote Bountiful as an NBC production in 1953, starring Lillian Gish as Carrie and Eva Marie Saint as the hectoring daughter-in-law Jesse May. They reprised their roles on Broadway. I didn’t see those productions, since in 1953, I was seven years old and my family didn’t even have a TV then. I have seen the 1985 movie starring Geraldine Page as Carrie and really enjoyed the drama.
The story is set in 1940s Houston . The characters are Carrie, a white-haired 60-year old widow, moved against her will from her ancestral home in Bountiful, her middle-aged son Ludie (Paul Morgan Stetler) and his wife Jesse Mae, whose idea of a good day is to get up, get dressed and made up and go to the drug store for a Coca-Cola, then see three “picture shows.”
Ludie and Jesse Mae are disappointed that they don’t have any children. He was sick for two years and couldn’t work so the family fortunes slipped. He is now a conscientious worker, almost afraid to take a day off because it might jeopardize his job. He moved his wife and mother from Bountiful 20 years ago, after the third year of drought, the death of the family farm, and his being unable to find work in the area.
Carrie has not seen the homestead in 20 years. Ludie doesn’t want to even talk about Bountiful because it was too painful to leave his home, and Jesse May is glad to get out of the backwater and into a real city with drug stores, a weekly trip to the beauty parlor and enough movie houses that she could see three different “picture shows” in one day.
The production opens with Carrie sitting in the rocking chair in the third-floor, three-room apartment, staring out the window at the full moon. Ludie and Jesse May are asleep in the bedroom. When Ludie comes out to see why his mother isn’t sleeping, Carrie says that she has never been able to sleep during a full moon.
The next morning, since Carrie’s small government pension check was supposed to have come the previous day, Jesse Mae searches the apartment, sure that her mother-in-law has hidden it, again, and will try to “run away to Bountiful” in her words.
Apparently, Carrie has been trying to get back to Bountiful for awhile, and the first step in her rebellion is hiding the check until she can cash it at the grocery store, buy a train ticket and attempt to go to Bountiful . Ludie and Jesse Mae have tracked her down to the train station several times, and Jesse Mae has finally told the grocery store owner not to cash any more checks for Carrie. She thinks that she and Ludie need that money to live on, to give her the cushion needed for beauty parlor visits, Coca-Colas at the drug store and “picture shows.”
Jesse Mae is a beauty, vain about her looks and impeccable clothes. She also thinks that Carrie sings gospel hymns just to annoy her, and when she is thwarted, gets sulky and won’t talk to Jesse Mae, just to annoy her. Jesse May is not a patient woman, does not have an empathetic bone in her body as far as Carrie is concerned, but she does sincerely love Ludie. However, she can’t stand to see someone with his abilities not ask for a raise or strive for success.
Carrie is a country farm wife and mother, who was raised with gospel hymns, dependency upon the land and the weather and a fierce love for her former home and, more importantly, for her only child Ludie, whom she recognizes is nattered to death at by Jesse Mae.
Ludie is a good farmer forced off the land by exhausted soil and drought. Jesse Mae is a seemingly shallow, frustrated non-mother and bored housewife whose irritations include her mother-in-law and her husband’s previous illness and lack of initiative in his current job.
Being almost caught at the train station, Carrie ends up at the bus station with just enough money to buy her ticket to Harrison, a town 12 miles from Bountiful . She vows to walk the 12 miles if she has to just to see her home. While she is waiting for the bus to leave, she talks with Thelma (Jessica Martin) whose husband has just been shipped overseas and she’s returning to her parents’ home to live while he’s gone. She’s a sweet, generous innocent who sympathizes with Carrie, especially when she meets Jesse Mae and Ludie searching for Carrie. They travel together to Harrison until Thelma’s connecting bus comes.
After Carrie gets to Harrison , the sheriff (Charles Leggett), at Jesse Mae’s insistence, detains her until Jesse Mae and Ludie can get there to pick her up. The sympathetic sheriff relents and drives her to Bountiful to visit her homestead until her ride home arrives. Jesse Mae lets Ludie go unescorted to get his mother but, after impatiently honking the car horn, does come bustling up brimming with self-importance and outrage. Ludie finally insists that they HAVE to get along. Carrie, having made peace with her quest, promises not to run away again. Jesse Mae makes Carrie promise not to sing hymns when she’s around, and she promises to try to be more patient. It’s not the end of all strife, but Carrie has visited her homestead, Ludie has finally put his foot down about the females’ bickering, and they go back to Houston .
The sets in the ACT Theatre’s small theater in the round are always very interesting and sometimes magical. Matthew Smucker’s are no exception. The bus seat that Thelma and Carrie share turns around so the women are visible to each part of the theater audience. The stars that descend while Carrie and Thelma travel on the bus are lovely.
Rick Paulsen’s moonlight in the first scene and the stars on the bus trip are wonderful. He lights various parts of the stage to isolate the action.
The costumes by Francis Kenny are exactly what people would be wearing in the late ‘40s. Jesse Mae’s fitted shirtwaist dresses with the full skirts and picture hats are impeccable. Thelma’s medium blue suit, white Peter Pan collar blouse, little straw hat and white pumps are exactly right. Ludie’s voluminous brown suit and fedora are small town practical. And what can I say about Carrie? Her shapeless, faded house dress, all-purpose, all covering apron, wrinkled cotton hose, lace-up walking shoes with a one-inch heel and felt hat reminded me so much of my husband’s grandmother, I could have been seeing Mary Lavinia Cummins. She came from Oklahoma via Missouri and Vinnie and Carrie were both clothed true to type.
“Trip to Bountiful ” runs through June 6 at ACT, A Contemporary Theatre, in Seattle . For tickets, call 206-292-7676 or go online to www.acttheatre.org.