Horton Foote’s lyrical family drama The Trip to Bountiful, which takes place in Texas in 1953, premiered the same year on NBC when television broadcasts were still black and white. The storyline suspends that ’50s specificity as if in aspic: The play’s central character, Mrs. Carrie Watts, an older widow, lives unhappily in Houston with her low-earning son and mean-spirited daughter-in-law. Carrie longs to escape with her pension check and return before she dies to the small town she grew up in, Bountiful, which she remembers as a beatific place. Unbeknown to Carrie (spoiler:) Bountiful has become a ghost town. Nonstop cotton crops have exhausted the land. Everyone has left or died, including Carrie’s dear childhood friend, whom she hoped to see again.
What with all the social revolutions and revelations that have rocked this country since the 1950s, one cannot say that this classic has aged particularly well, however much it may be for some a sentimental throwback comfort. In a sense Carrie’s quixotic trip to Bountiful functions as quintessentially white American nostalgia for an idealized agrarian past.
Yet like an heirloom of gold jewelry that has been handed down and tarnished by time, and may never have been the 24 karats it was touted to be, The Trip to Bountiful as staged at Ford’s serves as the setting for three gleaming gems: the adamantine performances of Nancy Robinette as Carrie; Kimberly Gilbert as her daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae Watts; and Emily Kester as Thelma, a kindly young woman Carrie meets in a bus stop en route to Bountiful.
Scenic Designer Tim Mackabee prefaces the production with a stagewide black-and-white photomural of clapboard row houses over which looms a massive utility pole. The mural lifts to reveal the Watts’ cramped two-room apartment, furnished meticulously in realistic detail. As the scenes unfold — through the local bus station, a bus ride, then another bus station, and finally to the blue skies and dried fields that once were Bountiful — the scenic design leaves down-to-earth reality behind and transitions to an imagined landscape of memory. It’s a nice touch.
Similarly, at the beginning Lighting Designer Rui Rita bathes Carrie in her rocker in the moonlight that keeps her from falling asleep. On Carrie’s nighttime bus ride with her seatmate Thelma, headlights of passing autos emulate momentum. And near the end, bright hot sunlight warms Carrie’s heart as she arrives deliriously in her sun-parched field of dreams.
Between scenes can be heard lovely original music by John Gromada, who also designed such sounds as distant trains and traffic. Ivania Stack’s costumes are persuasively of the period — including for the several supporting men characters — accented with flair for the women, as in colorful, flouncy dresses for Jessie Mae. Lynn Watson’s work as dialect and voice director is also noteworthy: the cast’s credible Texan twangs were unexaggerated, uniform, and easily understood.
Director Michael Wilson gets exactly right that what makes this play resonate in real time is neither showy effects nor societal relevance but rather old-school strong character work. The play needs us to recognize and relate to the folks in it to keep us attending to it and caring about it. To that end, Wilson has succeeded, selecting even for smaller roles an accomplished cast of pros. Of note among them is Joe Mallon as Ludie Watts, Carrie’s son, who is caught haplessly between conflicting loyalties to his frustrated, dear mother and his frustrated, shrewish wife.
As Ludie’s wife, Jessie Mae, Kimberly Gilbert is an astonishment of charm and anger. Gilbert, who in many a prior role has played a delightful ditz, here becomes a formidable b-word, and when she unleashes her critique against Carrie she is fearsome. Though we can recognize Jessie Mae’s scarcely suppressed rage as that of a bitter prefeminist housewife, Gilbert’s winning and magnetic performance never lets us not like her.
As Thelma, the young woman Carrie encounters on her trip, Emily Kester is a wonder of warmth and goodness. Thelma is on her way to her own place from her past: her husband has been shipped off to war and she’s going to stay with her birth family while he’s away. Carrie sees in her the daughter she never had and in a remarkable monologue trusts Thelma with her truth that she never loved her husband. That much is in the script, but it is Kester’s beautiful performance that makes us believe Thelma is someone to confide in.
The great Nancy Robinette rightfully gets top billing for her magnificently nuanced performance in the role of a woman of a certain age who has determined to have agency and independence in her life at last. It’s still circa 1950, and Carrie’s options for liberation are limited, but she makes the best of her lot. And Robinette brings to the part a bubbling undertone of glee and joy that surpasses all Carrie’s sorrows and sweeps her into our hearts.
Ford’s Theater’s Trip to Bountiful showcases three of DC’s preeminent actors in performances worth way more than the price of the ticket. Each in her own way transcends her role as written, and together they transport the entire play beyond the time in which it was written — which is indeed a bountiful trip.
Running Time: Two hours and 5 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission.
A Trip to Bountiful plays through October 16, 2022, at Ford’s Theatre, 514 10th Street NW, Washington DC. Tickets are now on sale online and range from $18 to $48. Discounts are available for groups, senior citizens, military personnel, and those younger than age 40. The production is recommended for ages 13 and older. Student matinees for The Trip to Bountiful are October 6 and 13 at 11:00 a.m. Learn more on the Ford’s Theatre website.
Recommended for ages 13 and older.
COVID Safety: Patrons with tickets to in-person performances are required to wear face masks during all mainstage performances. Ticket holders who do not comply with these policies will not be admitted.
Accessibility: Ford’s Theatre is accessible to persons with disabilities, offering wheelchair-accessible seating and restrooms, assisted listening devices, and Braille and large print playbills. Audio-described performances of The Trip to Bountiful are October 5, at 7:30 p.m. and October 15 at 2:00 p.m. A sign-interpreted performance on October 13 at 7:30 p.m. will also be made available. Accessible seating is available in both the rear orchestra and balcony sections. More information at fords.org/visit/accessibility.
GalaPro captioning services will be available to view on personal devices for all public performances. GalaPro is an app available from the App Store or Google Play that allows patrons to access captioning on demand through their phone or tablet device. Patrons set their phones to airplane mode and connect to the local GalaPro Wifi network before the performance begins. More information at fords.org/visit/
The Trip to Bountiful by Horton Foote
Nancy Robinette: Mrs. Carrie Watts
Joe Mallon: Ludie Watts
Kimberly Gilbert: Jessie Mae Watts
Emily Kester: Thelma
Marty Lodge: Houston Ticket Agent/Sheriff
Michael Glenn: Second Houston Ticket Agent/Voice/Understudy
Christopher Bloch: Roy/Voice/Understudy
Kimberly Schraf: Understudy
Veronica del Cerro: Understudy
CREATIVE AND PRODUCTION
Director: Michael Wilson
Scenic Design: Tim Mackabee
Costume Design: Ivania Stack
Lighting Design: Rui Rita
Original Music and Sound Design: John Gromada
Hair and Make-Up Design: Danna Rosedahl
Dialects and Voice Director: Lynn Watson
Production Stage Manager: Brandon Prendergast
Assistant Stage Manager: Julia Singer