Opening Nights: The Trip to Bountiful

Check your snark at the door for Horton Foote's sentimental journey.

Prodigious playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote's death last year inspired renewed interest in his earnest work. Cynics may groan, but in our dark and cunning times, it's rather magical how a little sincerity can work its way under the skin. This straightforward 1953 play about an elderly woman's determination to return to her rural birthplace holds no surprises, and at times even seems deliberately prosaic, but its emotional "music" resonates with the life experiences we bring into the theater—dead and elderly parents, stalled relationships, lost time, suppressed nostalgia. Settle in and let the leisurely tale wash over you like warm pan drippings over a baking bird.Such relaxed basting is harder to pull off at ACT's in-the-round space than it might be on a proscenium or thrust stage, where the actors would be able to "cheat out" toward the whole audience at all times. Tiny mutations of facial expression and gazes between characters are keys to Foote's intimate material. But at least one side of ACT's audience (the right side as you enter, which happened to be the side I was on) instead sees a high quotient of actor Marianne Owen's backside during the critical moments. For example, in much of the nocturnal opening scene, the formidable Owen (as the protagonist, Carrie Watts) sat in a rocking chair facing the other way, and I had no idea whether she was resting her eyes, smiling, or scowling while plotting her getaway from her son's cramped apartment.Frustrating though its angle logistics may be, ACT's production unites fine acting with whimsical stagecraft that, for example, disappears furniture into the air, choreographs a curvy bus ride on a rotating segment of floorboards, and sprouts sprigs of desert grass through holes in the floor. Carrie and her son Ludie (Quaid-handsome Paul Morgan Stetler) left the rural town of Bountiful 20 years earlier when the Depression and bad crops reduced it to a quasi–ghost town. Now Carrie sleeps in the living room of the tiny Houston apartment Ludie shares with his shallow, self-absorbed wife Jessie Mae (crisply portrayed by Mary Kae Irvin), who makes her humorous contributions unwittingly. Marriage to such a harpy and moving to the city have cost Ludie his childhood memories and also his emotional bond with his mother, so part of the "suspense" is seeing whether chasing Carrie on her journey will reconnect him with those things.Perhaps to bolster the skimpy plot, director Victor Pappas spikes Foote's mild punch at a few points. He makes Carrie appear to feign her first fainting spell (in order to hoodwink hawk-eyed Jessie Mae into thinking she's too weak to flee), whereas Foote's script attributes the dizziness to actual heart trouble. Pappas tinges several straight-written lines with irony, and has Owen throw back her head to bark a hymn like a hyena in the Harrison bus station.These odd notes are welcome amid dialogue so guileless as to border on cloying. True to Foote's intention, ACT's characters speak naturally, without self-consciousness, and generally don't seek to impress or entertain (a radical departure from the stagier approaches of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill). When Carrie finally reaches her destination, her plain words can't live up to the fullness in her heart. The humble awe Owen transmits while listening to the birds of Carrie's youth is no larger than most people's would be. Which is to say it's enormous.

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