In post-WWII America, many families left their farms, and men who had once been their own bosses were now answering to office supervisors and managers. Social critics have written about the demoralizing effect this had on men. But what of the women? After widowed Carrie Watts (Louisa Flaningam) is forced to sell off the vast family farmlands in Bountiful, Texas, she finds herself trapped in a two-room apartment in Austin, with her worried son (Christopher Holt) and snooty daughter-in-law (Amy Roche). Cramped, dependent, and infantilized, Carrie longs for the open land in Horton Foote’s classic, The Trip to Bountiful. Brian P. Allen directs a tender and beautifully nuanced production for Good Theater.
It’s 1953 in Austin, and the set gestures succinctly at the scale, textures, and close proximities of the city – narrow brick walls, a strip of wood shingles, modest early-century moldings. Carrie’s bed is in the living room, though she sits awake in the moonlight, dreaming of Bountiful. Ludie, too, pines for his childhood lands, as well as a certain archetype of manhood; Jessie Mae wants lights, radio, picture shows, nightclubs. She treats Carrie like a troublesome child, chastising her not to run in the house or sing hymns. The household is a tinderbox of resentment and yearning.
Foote draws careful symmetries of his Carrie and her nemesis Jessie Mae, and Flaningam and Roche, both excellent, physicalize their differences acutely. Carrie often touches her face in impulsive, artless gestures, cradling her chin, at once fraught, pensive and self-soothing. Jessie Mae, endlessly vain and superficial, moves with more practiced gestures, lightly primping her hair or silky robe. Where Carrie runs through the apartment with endearing, flailing-arms awkwardness, Jessie Mae struts with a controlled swing of her hips.
Holt’s Ludie is the archetypal Organization Man, repressed, emasculated, ashamed. (Here we might consider parallels with certain men of our own historical moment.) Pale, with trapped terror in his eyes, he is so subdued that your heart rises for him when his lips tease briefly into a smile. As he remembers Bountiful, his face opens into pleasure for a few light-filled seconds, then clenches into pain. Faced with Jessie Mae’s nagging, he often withdraws into the void, but Holt and Roche also crucially show us the love between them, their easy physical affection in rare moments when both loosen from their plaints and fears.
During the journey of the title, which begins at the bus station, the marvelously empathetic Flaningam shows us the woman Carrie once was, letting her inhabit space more confidently – her hands on hips, head up, smiling broadly. And it’s revelatory to hear the wisdom and compassion in her rough but melodious twang once she finally has occasion to share it, to speak her story and give an elder’s counsel, when a young woman on the bus, sweetly played by Hannah Daly, treats her as a person to be listened to. (Daly also does some subtle and very funny reacting to Jessie Mae’s nastiness.) The gentle bonding and easy laughter of the two is a balm of an antithesis to Carrie’s dehumanizing battle with Jessie Mae.
And Carrie’s synthesis, once she’s reunited with the farm, is one of limitations and acceptance – the world is not what it was. But her reawakening is grounded in the idea that in even limited communion with the land, we can find dignity and strength. It’s an old-fashioned breed of conservatism that all of us, perhaps, could get behind.
The Trip to Bountiful | By Horton Foote; Directed by Brian P. Allen; Produced by Good Theater | Through April 30 | At St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St. | Visit www.goodtheater.com