Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Theater Review: The Trip to Bountiful

Cicely Tyson, Cuba Gooding, Jr. Photo: Joan Marcus
A Slice of Life in Texas That Reaches Out and Makes an Audience in New York Sing a Hymn -- Now That's Theater!
By Lauren Yarger
The creative team who brought us the world of Horton Foote’s The Orphans’ Home Cycle (the winner of Drama desk, Outer Critics and NY Critics' Circle Awards for its 2009 run at Signature Theatre) and Dividing the Estate take us on another delightful voyage, this one The Trip to Bountiful, with an exceptional cast along for the ride.

Cicely Tyson shines (look for a Tony win here) as Carrie Watts, a elderly woman living in cramped Houston apartment with her son Ludie (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and controlling daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams), who wants to return to her roots in her hometown of Bountiful, TX one last time. She has worried Ludie with repeated attempts to go off on her own, but Jessie Mae seems more concerned about making sure Carrie doesn’t take off with the pension check that helps the family make ends meet and funds her her daughter-in-law's frequent trips to the beauty shop.

Carrie consoles herself with reading her bible and singing hymns, though Jessie Mae complains that the frequent bursts into song make her nervous. One day, Carrie manages to leave with her secreted check and buys a bus ticket. At the station, she is befriended by Thelma (Condola Rashad), a young girl on her way to stay with family while her husband serves overseas. The two bond and when Carrie leaves her purse with everything in it, including that important pension check, on the bus that just departed, Thelma and station attendant in Houston (Devon Abner) help her out.

Meanwhile, the local sheriff (Tom Wopat) realizes that Carrie is the woman Ludie reported missing and lets him know where she is. He kindly takes her to her old home in Bountiful, now decrepit (the scene is stunningly designed by Jeff Cowie), and there the family reunites.

Once again, Director Michael Wilson lovingly allows Foote’s characters to command the stage and finds an undercurrent of family harmony and love under the surface of what appears to be dysfunction and cacophony. Instead of being depressed and gloomy in her stifling circumstances and frustrated at not being able to return home, Carrie delights in her faith. Tyson’s joy as she sings “Blessed Assurance” is so contagious, that the audience joins in. It’s truly a beautiful theater moment and apparently happens at each performance, according to reports.

Rashad turns a minor part into a major memory as she brings the sensitive, loving Thelma to life. When Carrie tells the girl that she would want a daughter just like her, we feel the same. At the same time, it’s a sad statement about the daughter-in-law she does have, who doesn’t appreciate the treasure she has in this wonderful woman. (I just wanted to go up on stage, hug her and sit with her as she rocked in her chair reading her bible and singing hymns. We all should be blessed to have such a woman in our lives.)

At first glance, Williams seems too glamorous and beautiful to be this working class woman in Texas. Soon that beauty takes on new meaning -- her trips to the beauty parlor and obsession with movie magazines are evidence of a life that might have been for such a beauty. The casting gives Jessie Mae a new dimension. Gooding is understated as the man caught between the two women in his life, racked with guilt for feeling like he hasn’t provided adequately for either.

Only two criticisms entered my thoughts during this otherwise absorbing, delightful evening at the theater. First, it isn’t clear why Carrie decides not to stay in Bountiful. It should be a devastating decision, born out of realization of a past long gone and of hope lost, but instead, she seems almost happy to return to the domain of Jessie Mae, who hands her a written list of “dos” and “don’ts.” Is it because deep down, they really love each other? Possibly. Is it because just seeing the old homestead somehow returns the dignity she sought? That's possible too, but this take doesn't answer the question, so we’re not sure how it happened. We're left feeling like we followed a map to Bountiful that suddenly takes us to an unexpected destination with no explanation for how we arrived there.

Second criticism: the theater is freezing. Isn’t it supposed to be hot in Texas? Later I wondered whether the cold temperature was needed for a wonderful fog effect that creates low-hanging clouds over Bountiful. Perhaps, but be sure to bring a sweater -- and some tissues. Lots of people were wiping away tears at he end.

The Trip to Bountiful runs through Sept. 1 at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 West 43rd St., NYC. Tickets and info:

Christians might also like to know:
No content notes. enjoy!

1 comment:

Rich Swingle said...

The New York Times had a front page article on this phenomenon of the audience singing "Blessed Assurance" with Tyson: "Something Happened on Way to Bountiful: Everyone Sang Along".
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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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