by Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
The Trip To Bountiful -- A Small Play
By Horton Foote
The Signature Theater
555 West 42 Street
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden February 15, 2006
For years, the Signature Theater has been devoted to their playwrights-in residence project which produces the works of contemporary American playwrights. Among them have been Sam Shepard, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, John Guare to name a few. Now they have inaugurated a two year anniversary celebration of their playwrights in residence program, and they have chosen Horton Foote's acclaimed play "The Trip to Bountiful" to launch it.
Horton Foote, the eminent American playwright has a huge body of work, a large following, a winner of numerous awards, dozens of accolades, and is acclaimed as one of our most distinguished playwrights. So it is rather difficult for one to dissent from all the praise lavished upon him. But "The Trip To Bountiful" is a small play. It is about old age, a mean daughter-in-law, a weak inadequate son, and an old woman who would like to turn the clock back to a time she was happy in a town called Bountiful. One wonders if she really had such a grand time there, or is all an illusion? When she finally gets to the town, the place is wrecked. But that's the point; the past is gone; it's demolished. Should she adjust to the new--even if she needs to live with a daughter-in-law from hell? Horton Foote writes many poetic lines, and lots of wistful scenes; there is a lot of sweetness. But maybe that's the trouble--too much sweetness, not enough vinegar. One of the ambiguities in the play is that the old lady seems to be a bit off, at least she is played that way, and that diminishes her and what she wants. Maybe all she wants is a little kindness from her bitchy daughter-in-law, who the moment she walks on stage, with her squeaky voice and bad speech, we know she is the villain. Moreover the characters are very unresolved. The son is a weakling who can't stand up to his awful wife; his character is not fleshed out; why is the mother living with that childless couple, and is that one of their troubles; and what happened to their family and their property. These details are somehow missing. There is plenty of talk about the old days and I suppose Horton Foote is telling us that the South, as it was, is gone; forget it and adjust. But for all the talk, the play is unclear.
Now for the actors. Lois Smith is an actor. That's for sure. She has power on stage; she has a voice; she knows how to project unlike the rest of the cast who were inaudible and inarticulate. Ms. Smith has drawn a detailed portrait of the woman, down to the her trembling, her shortness of breath, her almost heart attack (or so it seems), her rapid walk, her looks, her stance. She has worked out the part in every detail. And I respect her for that. On the other hand, it is too worked out, it is too showy, it is not a simple, translucent performance where you do not see the actor's technique working. Unfortunately, Ms. Smith's technique which seems to be formidable, is too obvious, even though admirable at times. On the whole, she works too hard. But she holds the play together. I doubt the play would stand up without her. Hallie Foote (the playwright's daughter) as the daughter-in-law should take voice and diction lessons. Devon Abner as the son has a thankless part; the man is a wimp, and Mr. Abner has a hard time. He plays him as a wimp, with no energy, with an undistinquished voice that can't be heard and without the slightest projection of what's wrong with this guy. O. K. he feels inadequate. And so?
Most of the production's weakness goes to the playwright himself. The play is too long, too redundant, too sentimental, too like a formula especially in the end, when they all reunite and become friendly again and presumably live happily ever after. Horton Foote may have been writing about peoples' longing to retreat to something they knew in their youth and the difficulty of accepting the realities of age, but this theme never becomes alive. Harris Yullin, the diector, regrettably offered no new insight and moreover allowed the pace to slacken. A play almost two hours without intermission must go fast otherwise-- forget about it.
Still Lois Smith is to be admired. The length of the part, the torrents of words, the physicality she injected into the role, and her actor's energy were commendable. She is the only attraction. So if you want to see this production see it for Lois Smith. Despite some of her weaknesses, she is truly an actor to admire.
Margaret Croyden's most recent book "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" is published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
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