Scott Sneddon is Senior Editor on SesayArts Magazine where he is also a critic and contributor.
I always appreciate an evening at the Alumnae Theatre. The world seems to slow down, opening up space for artfully mounted, thought-provoking long-form drama. In this eddy at the edge of city life, it’s not about visual pyrotechnics or bleeding edge modernity. It’s about substance and depth. Immersion. And food for thought.
In this regard, this week’s trip to the Alumnae over-delivered.
Texas playwright Albert Horton Foote first wrote The Trip to Bountiful in 1953 as a television play. It was broadcast and staged on Broadway that year. Then, more than 30 years later, he wrote the Academy Award-nominated screenplay for a movie version that was released in 1985. From the mists of a vanished past, the play emerges in Director Brenda Darling’s new production as astoundingly relevant.
It tells the story of Carrie Watts – “Mother” – an 80-year-old Houston woman who lives with her vacillating son and domineering daughter-in-law. Mother is wonderfully spry and vibrant, yet prone to “sinking spells” which sap her energy. And Mother feels an urgent need – almost a biological or spiritual imperative – to return to her former home in Bountiful. She has not seen it in decades. It may no longer exist. But she needs to see it. For some time now, she has used every unwatched moment to sneak off to the train station. Each time she has been thwarted and returned to the house by her frazzled son and exasperated daughter-in-law. The play chronicles one more effort to complete the trip to Bountiful.
The set is dominated by 3 screens which project black-and-white 1950s-era photographs of streets, buildings and people. These striking images are rich with detail that conjures the time period and the external landscape. On the stage is simple furniture – first the bedroom and sitting room of the family’s urban Houston home, then the seats and booths of other locations. The set’s simplicity suits this languorous, winding tale, which derives its energy not from dramatic external action, but from the inner workings of these people’s minds and the interactions that reveal them. The interior, mental landscape realized by the actors is the focus of the action. And it is vibrant and nuanced, thanks to a rich script and exceptional acting performances.
Jane Hunter’s Mother is simply remarkable. Quick-witted yet haunted, furtively scurrying with a twinkle in her eye, she is propelled by a quirky serenity and abiding kindness that positively radiate from her. We can’t take our eyes off her – and we are immediately, deeply invested in her journey. Kim Croscup’s daughter-in-law Jessie Mae is equally captivating as she chews the scenery with oblivious narcissism and loud small-mindedness. Jamie Johnson as Ludie Watts surprises as the son and husband caught between the two of them. He is a curious, compelling and unpredictable mix of melancholy, resignation, fear and assertion. Finally, Priscilla Asiffo is sweetly understated as fellow traveler Thelma, whose serenity and compassion feel like the world reflecting Mother’s abiding kindness back at her.
Ultimately, The Trip to Bountiful is a play about memory, identity and connection. Do we abandon our past? Shrink from it and leave it deliberately behind because we are – or must be – someone else or someone new? Or do we circle back to it, plumb its depths and cherish it, in order to understand it and integrate it into our identities? The aging and frail Mother’s quest to reach Bountiful most clearly manifests this theme, but Jessie Mae, Ludie and Thelma embody alternative versions that find different resolutions in the play’s simple, understated ending.
This metaphorical trip to reclaim, reintegrate or replace our past is an important one that we each must take. The play’s title is “The Trip to Bountiful” after all. The journey is more important than the arrival.
So a literal trip to the Alumnae Theatre before February 1 is highly recommended. It comes with performances to savour and lasting food for thought. Bountiful, indeed.
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What: The Trip to Bountiful by Horton Foote; produced by Simone Goldberg; directed by Brenda Darling
Cast: Jane Hunter, Kim Croscup, Jamie Johnson, Priscilla Asiffo, Johana Pina, Victoria Stark, Candi Zell, Fabio Abreu
When: On stage until February 1, 2020
Where: Alumnae Theatre, 70 Berkeley Street, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: Alumnaetheatre.com
© Scott Sneddon, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2020