The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Friday, April 26, 2013

FCS: The Trip to Bountiful




Quick facts:
  • Show: The Trip to Bountiful
  • Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, April 25, 2013
  • Time: 7:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: July 7, 2013
  • Venue: Stephen Sondheim Theatre
  • Running time: 2:20 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Last row of the orchestra, almost exactly center.  So while it might have been nice to have been closer - at least not under the lip of the mezzanine - it was still a pretty good seat
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: A fiesty, but elderly woman, living in the city with her good-hearted son and domineering daughter-in-law, longs to go home - to Bountiful - the now-dead town where she grew up.

My thoughts: You know how there are some nights, when you're on a long drive home, and all you want to do is turn up the radio way too loud and listen to Bill Gaither and the Homecoming Friends sing old fashioned Southern gospel hymns, and sing along at the top of your lungs, and conduct the gospel band from behind the steering wheel as you drive down the highway?

Am I the only one that happens to?

Well, I wouldn't be, if more people saw the captivating performance of Cicely Tyson in The Trip to Bountiful.

I had never seen the 1985 movie by which most people who know this story came to know it.  So I went into the evening entirely fresh and unprepared.  I knew a basic sketch of the story, but mostly, I just knew this production boasted a stellar cast in the most literal sense of the expression: Cicely Tyson in the starring role of Mrs. Carrie Watts, Cuba Gooding, Jr. as her son, Ludie Watts, and Vanessa Williams as his wife, and Mrs. Watts' daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae Watts.  But even beyond the "above the title" stars, even the down-ticket talent was quite an assemblage: the Tony nominated Broadway veteran Condola Rashad in the endearing role of Thelma, who Mrs. Watts meets and befriends in the Houston bus station and on the ride to Harrison, and the peculiarly oft-celebrated Tom Wopat in the role of the Harrison Sherrif whose heart is predictably softened by the ever-lovable Mrs. Watts.

So knowing all of this, I knew I was in for a treat.  You don't gather a cast of that magnitude if not for a truly remarkable project.

And while it is a thrilling cast, no one can compare with the sheer emotional connection and impact of Cicely Tyson.  It would take a luminous cast to keep up with her.  The production couldn't have worked any other way.  And while I'm convinced that she could bring deep meaning and connection to even the most bland and uninteresting dramatic work, fortunately, in this delightful and thought provoking character study by Horton Foote, she had plenty more than "bland and uninteresting" to work with.

Despite her small frame and frail and ragged voice doddering across the stage, her commanding performance drew the audience in to every calculated and meticulously presented nuance of her performance and character.  Like some real life Norma Desmond, yet still in her never-ending prime, she could lift an eyebrow or barely cock her head and tell the thousand words behind her ever-percolating thoughts to the lonely audience member in the farthest reaches of the vast house.

Even in the tradition of magnificent productions and always high expectations of the Broadway stage, Tyson takes us even beyond what you might expect and raises the bar yet again.

Near the end of the first, almost awkward scene as the characters and their interpersonal baggage are introduced and explored, one of the most biting exchanges occurs between Mrs. Watts and Ludie.  She is being warned not to run off again.  As Ludie scolds his mother she stops him.  Not with anger or malice, not even with defiance, but with a shocking matter of fact declaration: quite simply, "I want to go home."

And that's where it all really lies.  Her words cut through the quick pace and distractions and relational games like a freshly sharpened knife through just-picked green tomato.

This woman has been through a lot.  We never really learn what, exactly, but the person she is says volumes about how she got there.

When she says those words, the motion of the story stopped in a pregnant pause.  Only just a second really, but enough to jar us into the finality of the declaration.  The audience audibly gasped.  This old woman means business.

The old ladies I used to know when I was growing up would say, "Lord willing and the creek don't rise."  Or for matters of greater import, "Lord willing and Jesus tarries."  But in that moment, we knew that Mrs. Carrie Watts was uninterested in the Lord's will, or any rising creek, or even the schedule of the returning Messiah.  Nothing could keep her from her goal.  For her, Bountiful was not so much a destination as a destiny.  And nothing could keep her away.  She would make her way from the two room apartment cramped by three people to the open spaces, trees, salty air and fields of Bountiful.  She came from Bountiful and needed that bounty in her life once again.

The movement of the story is basically unimportant.  My words could never do justice to the relationships she forms and the spiritual journey that would ensue.  You really must experience in its own right.

Just as the cast had to reach far higher than most to keep up with Ms. Tyson, so, too, did every other aspect of the production.  It was beautifully and capably staged by director Michael Wilson.  The scenic design by Jeff Cowie was as careful and magnificent as any I've every seen on a live stage.  And the lighting design by Rui Rita, while at brief moments a bit confusing in conveying the passage of time (did we really go that quickly from breakfast to a starry night??), was, in the full experience, beautiful, impactful, and living.

I spent the evening smiling.  I fell in love with Mrs. Watts and cheered her on to her goal.  I became infected by her gentleness, her wisdom, and her spunk.  A combination I often love in real life, and long for on the stage.  On the whole, it was a triumphant performance by an equally triumphing cast and creative team.

It was joyous, touching, and transcendent.  In short, what every night at the theater aspires to be.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Definitely.  But in fairness, I'd pay good money to see Cicely Tyson read the phone book.  And even more, I wanted to be her friend.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who? Absolutely.  To just about anyone.  I know I'm usually all about the musicals, and it's a bit odd that I've seen more straight plays this season than in my entire theater history, combined.  This one was worth it more than I could have imagined.
  • Twitter review:  Go now!  You don't have long and you'll regret letting this one slip by!

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