For more than 25 years, Cicely Tyson dreamed of starring in “The Trip to Bountiful.’’ If you see her sublime performance in Horton Foote’s drama at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, you’ll understand why.
It’s not often that an actress is able to absolutely inhabit a role the way Tyson does in her portrayal of Mrs. Carrie Watts, an elderly widow who is determined to journey back to her small hometown of Bountiful, Texas, despite the adamant opposition of her son and daughter-in-law.
Indeed, it doesn’t really seem like a role at all, so thoroughly does the truth of lived experience permeate every word, look, gesture, and movement by Tyson, whose age has been reported by The New York Times as 89.
The storyline of “The Trip to Bountiful,’’ set in 1953, is modestly scaled, and may strike contemporary audiences as slight. But under the sensitive direction of Michael Wilson, this production sounds some deep chords. Quietly but insistently, “Bountiful’’ asks us to contemplate what we lose when we leave home behind -- the words “lose’’ or “lost’’ come up time and again in the play -- and how large a part of home remains in us even after we’ve left it.
Like the Broadway revival (also directed by Wilson) for which Tyson won a Tony Award last year, this “Bountiful’’ features a predominantly African-American cast, including Blair Underwood as Carrie’s beleaguered son, Ludie; Vanessa Williams as his narcissistic wife, Jessie Mae; and Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Thelma, a young military bride who becomes Carrie’s temporary traveling companion. The play acquires a resonant subtext; we’re mindful of the fact that it’s taking place in the Deep South during the era of segregation. In the bus station where Carrie begins her journey, a sign affixed to the ticket-sales counter notes that it is for “colored’’ passengers, reminding us that it’s not just familial or age-related obstacles this intrepid traveler faces.
Our awareness of the social forces arrayed against her adds an extra shiver of joy to one of the most moving scenes in this production, when Carrie, having made it within a dozen miles of her goal, leads Thelma in a jubilant hymn (ending on the word “home’’) before guiding the younger woman through some lovely dance steps. In those moments, Tyson’s Carrie is the picture of a woman released and reborn.
Earlier, in Houston, Jeff Cowie’s set design effectively conveys a sense of claustrophobia in the Watts’s cramped apartment, where even the snap of a clasp on Carrie’s suitcase is enough to put Ludie on alert in the next room.
As Ludie, Underwood taps more deeply into the son’s frustrations, disappointments, restlessness, and generally unmoored feeling than Cuba Gooding Jr. did in the Broadway production. Williams, reprising the role she played on Broadway, brings enjoyable gusto to her portrayal of the imperious Jessie Mae, along with a glimmer or two of sympathy; for all her self-absorption, Jessie Mae has some grounds for frustration herself with the Watts’s domestic arrangement.
There’s at least one false step in the tightly constructed “Bountiful’’: A white sheriff (played by Devon Abner), who had initially demonstrated something close to hostility toward Carrie, suddenly transforms into a paragon of helpful solicitude. In addition, “Bountiful’’ may feel overly familiar by this point, given that Tyson et. al. appeared in a version for the Lifetime channel and memories remain fresh of the mid-1980s film starring Geraldine Page.
But the force of Tyson’s stage presence has a way of making those issues evaporate, whether she’s rocking fiercely back and forth in her chair in the apartment as Carrie plots her next move or bringing a slyly different inflection to the phrase “Yes, ma’am’’ each time Carrie says it to Jessie Mae, from grudging to sardonic to resigned. When Carrie receives some devastating news, Tyson brings a degree of physical explosiveness to the character’s response that might challenge an actress decades younger.
During a gentler interlude, as the old woman reminisces on the bus, looking out at the audience, Tyson repeatedly slides her left hand up and down her right arm. Meanwhile, her eyes seem to see not just what’s before her but also a faraway past -- and those eyes are equally expressive when she finally gets her chance to survey what’s left of that past.
On opening night, at the curtain call, Underwood and Williams each took one of Tyson’s elbows, hoisted her a few inches off the ground, and affectionately carried her offstage. Lifted and transported: Yep, that’s just how those of us in the audience felt.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.