Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

A Lesson in Acting: Cicely Tyson in “The Trip to Bountiful”

Cecily Tyson sparkles in "The Trip to Bountiful" at the Ahmanson [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Cicely Tyson sparkles in “The Trip to Bountiful” at the Ahmanson [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Every once in a while, a theatrical experience transcends the norm. Sometimes a single performer finds just the right interior space in a character to create what is lamely referred to as “theatrical magic.” At those moments, when that happens, one is once again presented with the reason live theater must exist: a moment of shared lightning unavailable in any other, less immediate medium.

Such a moment is the production of Horton Foote’s elegantly poignant “The Trip to Bountiful,” and, at its center, the overwhelming performance of Cicely Tyson. Miss Tyson, at 80, offers up a master class on how to create a character whose dignity, humor and vitality radiate into the audience with such intensity these watchers are pulled emotionally onto the stage.

Despite its setting in 1950s Texas, “The Trip to Bountiful” has a universality, as do all Foote’s works, in that they are as much character studies as historical tributes. His plays focus on what home means to the people who inhabit his worlds, and how that sense of home plays upon their sense of self.

Many may know the story line of “The Trip to Bountiful” either from prior productions, or from either of two filmed versions. Ludie Watts works in Houston, supporting his fussy wife Jessie Mae and his elderly mother Carrie. A constant worry is his mother’s attempts to escape their apartment, ostensibly to return to the tiny gulf town she grew up in, called Bountiful. One day she does manage that escape, and in the process she, her son, his wife, and a few folk she meets along the way all learn something important about themselves and about hope.

Tyson is Carrie, imbuing her with a tenacity, a faith and a humor which are absolutely infectious. From almost her first words, she has the audience on her side as Carrie’s clever planning outwits her pursuers and, despite elemental roadblocks, fights her way toward her goal. On the way, Tyson’s sheer energy makes it impossible to take your eyes off of her. Upon arrival, the peace Carrie finds makes one envious.

(l. to r.) Vanessa Williams (background), Cicely Tyson and Blair Underwood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

(l. to r.) Vanessa Williams (background), Cicely Tyson and Blair Underwood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

As the much-harrassed Ludie, Blair Underwood creates a man balancing two willful women while trying to find his own sense of his place in the world. Watching this escape and pursuit story, it is often easy to find Ludie less than sympathetic, but not here. His internal fight with his own dreams, his gradual unbending into the sense of his mother’s journey, and the warmth which flows between them help the play’s conflicts resolve. Vanessa Williams gives Jessie Mae all the snarky, controlling, self-centered frustration necessary to make one cheer for Carrie’s release. Still, there is just a hint of desperation under her constant energy, which gives the part a less two-dimensional feel.

Cicely Tyson and Jurnee Smollett-Bell [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Cicely Tyson and Jurnee Smollett-Bell [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Jurnee Smollett-Bell provides charming counterpoint to Jessie Mae’s edginess as Thelma, the young woman Carrie befriends on her journey. Her warmth and her regret at needing to move on touch the heart. Arthur French makes a truly sympathetic character out of the small town bus station attendant along the way, and Devon Abner creates the patient and understanding sheriff who takes Carrie the final leg of her journey.

Director Michael Wilson takes all these fine talents and wraps them around Tyson’s Carrie like a blanket. There is room for her to shine, and lovely people for her to play off of. The result is a play at once touching and funny, sad and revitalizing. The production is also beautiful to look at, thanks to Jeff Cowie’s evocative set designs, and the tonally rich costuming by Van Broughton Ramsey.

Yet, one always comes back to Cecily Tyson. This is the role she has waited years to play, and one can see why. When Carrie speaks, close to the end, about the way she is filled by the gulf air and wind off the land, you quickly understand that for Tyson that same richness comes directly from being on that stage, at this time.

So, run, don’t walk, to the Ahmanson and get yourself a ticket to “The Trip to Bountiful.” Inside you will find a great treasure, and leave knowing you have seen something extraordinary: a fine play graced with a remarkable performance by an extraordinary performer. This is why we go. This is why theater exists.

What: “The Trip to Bountiful” When: Through November 2, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays at 1 p.m., with extra performances 6:30 p.m. October 5 and 19 (and no 1 p.m. performance those days), and a 2 p.m. on October 30. Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in the Music Center in downtown L.A. How Much: $25 – $125 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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